I have read countless articles and watched numerous videos about Gilad Shalit being reunited with his family five years after his abduction. One typical report noted he was “just 19 years old in 2006 when he was cruelly and illegally abducted by Hamas.” I have been hearing of him for the past five years. I know Gilad Shalit’s name better than I know the names of my classmates.
What I have already forgotten, however, is the names of the 477 Palestinians that were freed. What I will never know are the stories of the thousands of Palestinians who are spending their entire lives behind bars away from their family and friends. The thousands of children, women and men still captivated unjustly in Israeli jails. The children that grew up in cages. The parents that watched their children seized out of their hands and taken away without their consent, forced to watch from afar awaiting news on their child’s whereabouts, praying that their child wouldn’t be tortured — too much. Those are the things, the stories the world has never learned and will never learn. Those are the nameless, faceless heroes that were freed in this exchange, while thousands more continue to languish in Israeli jail.
Ashraf Baluji, Imad Abu Rayyan, Imad al-Masri and Yusuf al-Khalis were only 18 and 19 years old when they were arrested back in 1991. They were part of the first 477 prisoners of war to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit after spending over 20 years in Israeli jails. Crazily, 1991 was the year I was born. Every breath I have ever taken, every moment I have known of life, they were locked up and tortured.
In every article I’ve read referring to Shalit by his name and the 1,027 Palestinians being released in exchange as a number or as “militants,” the journalist has forgotten to mention that Shalit was an armed and trained soldier that was “kidnapped” from a military occupation vehicle, that the majority of Palestinian prisoners never engaged in military or criminal acts against Israel, and were only accused of resistance to the Israeli military occupation. They have conveniently left out the numerous Palestinian children abducted from their homes and taken far away, usually denied even visits from their parents or lawyers.
In 2009, Time magazine published a story about Walid Abu Obeida, a Palestinian farm boy who was only 13 years old when he was stopped on his way home by two Israeli soldiers aiming their rifles at him. They punched, beat, and arrested him while his parents wondered where he was and why their son wasn’t home yet (“Does Israel mistreat Palestinian child prisoners?,” 30 June 2009).
Alas, Abu Obeida’s treatment was far from an isolated incident. As of the latest figures recorded by Defence for Children International-Palestine Section, as of October 2011, 164 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old are behind bars, including 35 aged between 12 and 15 years old (Child detainees, accessed 7 November 2011).
Many are being held without trial or conviction, while others are — often falsely — convicted of throwing rocks at Israeli tanks occupying their land and demolishing their homes.
Key facts forgotten
Israel has arrested more than 650,000 Palestinians, a number equal to about 20 percent of the population, since the occupation of the West Bank began in 1967. We tend to forget that Israel is occupying Palestine when we speak of the two. Palestinians are killed and arrested every day under the pretext of “protecting Israeli security.” Palestinians are kidnapped from their homes and stand trial in Israeli courts, where even Palestinian witnesses have no right to testify, while others are jailed, without trial or charge, under “administrative detention”.
Looking through the list of released prisoners, I found the name of Akram Mansour, who was arrested at the age of 18. He has spent over three torturous decades languishing in Israeli jails for resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. At 51, he finally gets to taste a bit of freedom — although without his mother, father or sister who died while he was in Israeli custody — before the brain tumor he developed in Israeli jails takes life itself from him. In an online Arabic-language interview with Mansour, he says he currently suffers from paralyzed fingers, missing teeth and blackouts because of the torture he was subjected to, which varied from hammering his fingers to a nail in his forehead to having urine spilled over him and, after filing a complaint, being forced to strip naked in the cold as buckets of freezing water were spilled over him (“The suffering of the liberated prisoner Akram Mansour,” 24 October 2011 [Arabic]).
Robbed of childhood
Twelve-year-old Palestinian boys are robbed of their innocence and childhood behind bars. Sixteen-year-old Palestinian children are tried as adults by Israel, even though the legal age under international and even Israeli law (for Israelis) is 18. Mothers and sisters are arrested and convicted of terrorism for standing up to the occupation. Children are forced to grow up without parents. Men are convicted and sentenced to as many as 36 life sentences for resisting their genocide. In total, 1,027 will be freed while 5,000 remain captive.
Gilad Shalit will be remembered as a hero that endured five years of kidnapping, during which he had regular medical checkups and was placed in as good a condition as Gaza could provide under the Israeli blockade. This is more than I can say for the Palestinian prisoners, who have often been deprived of basic services, including medical attention when needed.
Today, Shalit is a free man with no conditions on his freedom. However, the 477 Palestinians freed in the first part of this exchange were either allowed home, provided they report to Israel monthly and not travel between Palestinians cities; or exiled to Gaza where they may not see their families in the West Bank (who are not allowed into Gaza); or even exiled outside the entire country and banned from ever returning home. Through preventing released prisoners from returning home, Israel violates the most basic of human rights. Article 12 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights states: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”
A life is a life, and a human being is a human being. So, many now ask why Gilad Shalit’s life is worth 1,027 Palestinian lives. To ask that is to not understand Israel. An Israeli life’s value cannot be estimated, whereas a Palestinian life is of very little to no value. I think I speak for most Palestinians when I say, I’m glad Gilad Shalit is home, safe and with his family, that Palestinians more than anyone understand what it’s like to lose a father, mother, brother, sister, daughter and son. More than anyone, Palestinians understand the joy he and his family must feel now that his back.
Personally, I believe a fair exchange would have been to release all Palestinian prisoners for all Israeli prisoners, namely just Gilad Shalit, rather than making one life worth 1,027 lives. However, knowing that Israel would never agree to that, I congratulate Hamas and the Palestinian people on their victory. And I pray for the remaining 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli custody, and many more currently being arrested to fill the cells being emptied of 1,027 prisoners.
Dana Halawa is a twenty-year-old American-Palestinian medical student at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Jordan.