GAZA CITY, October 19 (JMCC) - Tears of happiness ran down the faces of many Palestinians as tens of thousands rallied in Gaza City’s al-Khatib square to greet prisoners
released from jails in Israel on Tuesday.
The celebration was a rare sign of unity between the Palestinian factions as yellow Fateh
flags flew in a sea of green Hamas
A group of women dressed in black, their faces covered, were seated in the grass waiting to receive prisoner Khamis Akel from Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.
Israel arrested Akel in 1991 and sentenced him to 20 life sentences and 20 years. “He spent 20 years [in prison and today he leaves it, said his sister Hanan.
When he was arrested, he was 25 years old and a father of four children. All of them are now married and had children; now he is a grandfather, said Hanan.
Government offices and schools and universities closed Tuesday as Hamas officials declared a public holiday to celebrate the prisoner swap. In total, 1027 prisoners will be released in two stages in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by armed groups and hidden in Gaza for five years.
Streets in the coastal territory, home to 1.6 million Palestinians, were nearly empty except for members of Hamas’ armed wing stationed at city intersections.
Hanan said she hoped that future prisoner swaps would gain the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners that remained in Israeli jails.
Freed prisoner Hani Abu Sitta, from Khan Younis, said that he is ready for a new life and a family. Arrested at 19, the 38-year-old said he knew both normal life under Israeli occupation and the difficult conditions in Israeli jails.
‘A NEW LIFE’
My mother has built a house for me,” he said. “This is the alternative to 19 years of torture. I am going to get married and look for a new future and a new life, Abu Sitta said.
Nearby, the family of prisoner Ahmed al-Faleet had been waiting since 10 am in the central square. Only four family members were allowed to go to Rafah crossing to greet him when he entered Gaza. It was 5 pm when the busses carrying the men and women finally arrived at the square.
Al-Faleet's elder cousin, Eyad, ran next to the bus, jumping up to touch his hand extended from the window.
Al-Faleet was 19 years old when he was arrested in 1992 and sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing an Israeli settler in Gaza, according to his cousin.
We are very happy for this swap,” he said. “We did not expect him to be released. It is a real victory, Iyad said.
Hundreds of family members and well-wishers surrounded the approximately 20 mini-busses. Some of the released Palestinians reached out to them from the windows, waving, and others leaned their whole bodies from the vehicles.
STILL AWAY FROM FAMILY
Abdullah Abu Seif, a prisoner from Hebron in the West Bank who was released on condition that he be sent to Gaza, stuck his head out of the bus window and waved to the crowds, smiling.
Israel released 477 prisoners from an agreed 1,027 on Tuesday. Among them, 274 prisoners from Gaza and 131 from the West Bank were reunited with their families. But 145 additional prisoners from the West Bank were sent to Gaza and 40 prisoners to Egypt, where they were then deported to Turkey, Qatar, Syria and Jordan.
I was sentenced to 25 years and fulfilled nine of them,” said Abu Seif. “I am coming to Gaza while my family is in Hebron. I hope to meet them soon, and I am looking to a new future.”
It is like a dream. I thought I would die in prison, but this swap is a gift from God, he said.
Iyad Adawi knows what it is like to find oneself far from home. He was sent to Gaza as part of a deal to end a 2002 stand-off in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity where he and other Palestinians were holed up for five and a half weeks. Then, Palestinian officials negotiated with Israel to have 26 wanted Palestinians sent to Gaza. Thirteen were deported to European countries.
Gaza has very limited access to the outside world. Its exit to Israel nearly sealed and its crossing with Egypt processes only several hundred travelers a day. While it is part of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, Gaza is separated from the West Bank, including Jerusalem, by Israel.
Adawi said he was at the square looking for Khaled Taha, from Jerusalem. “He was released and deported to Gaza. He has no relatives here, and I will take care of him, he said.
The released prisoners entered Gaza from Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, parliamentarians, and senior Hamas leaders received them at the crossing.
The ceremony was tightly controlled by Gaza’s anti-riot police. Nevertheless, the sheer joy of the crowds often got the best of officers and the scene became chaotic.
Many journalists were angry because only a handful of international reporters and local press from Hamas-affiliated media were allowed to cover the released prisoner’s crossing into Gaza and the moments when they first met their families in Rafah.