The sense of joy was palpable in the streets of Gaza on Tuesday. It was a remarkable day in the life of the territory’s 1.6 million Palestinians. During the last five years Israel has levied a heavy price from them for the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian resistance fighters. It has been extracted with Israel’s warplanes, tanks, bulldozers and relentless siege.
At last the people of Gaza could feel a sense of relief. From early morning, thousands lined both sides of Salah al-Din street, a main thoroughfare, as if they were receiving a VIP or a president. But it was prisoners freed under a deal between Israel and Hamas who were the honored guests. A few kilometers away from the main road, thousands more gathered in Gaza City’s al-Katiba Square, where a large stage had been erected and patriotic music played.
Just near the stage, hundreds of women of all ages stood anxiously, some cheering loudly as the song “Palestinians, Palestinians, Determined to Go On” played. Older women ululated joyfully, in a scene reminiscent of traditional Palestinian wedding parties before 1948, the year when many of these women and their families were displaced by Israeli occupation forces from towns and villages that are now over the border in Israel. On this day, Gaza resembled a big Palestinian wedding party for every single Palestinian man and woman.
Looking old and tired among dozens of women, Umm Hazem Hasanin from eastern Gaza City held a portrait of her son Hazem, who was taken prisoner by Israeli forces in 2004 near the Nahal Oz Junction, east of Gaza City.
Hasanin spoke cheerfully to The Electronic Intifada, despite having stood in the sun for several hours. “God willing, my son will be released soon, even tomorrow hopefully. I am here today despite the fact that my son is not listed in the exchange deal,” she said, “I am here to send a message that all Palestinians are looking for freedom and salvation from the Israeli occupation.”
Umm Hazem’s son, now 31, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
“Proud of heroes”
Farhana al-Ashqar is another elder Palestinian woman, who waited several hours in Tuesday’s heat to welcome the freed prisoners. Her nephew Ibrahim has been imprisoned for one year and two months.
“May Allah bestow victory on the Palestinian resistance in order to achieve further prisoner swap deals that will help those in Israeli jails to be freed. We are proud of these heroes. I left my house today to come here and welcome such heroes,” al-Ashqar said . Others in the area designated for women in al-Katiba Square had relatives of their own listed in the long-awaited prisoners exchange deal.
Fawziya Abu Karsh is the sister-in-law of the released prisoner, Talib Abu Karsh, who was sentenced to four life terms. He has spent 16 years in prison.
“I have been here since 9 AM to welcome him and to see him after these long years of imprisonment. Let me greet the Palestinian resistance for helping release these Palestinian heroes,” Abu Karsh said, while carrying her baby near a portrait of Talib.
At another corner in al-Katiba Square, hundreds of youth gathered, raising Palestinian flags and banners of Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Islamic Jihad, a mix of colors representing the various political factions, a scene very rarely seen since a national unity government led by Fatah and Hamas, the major parties, collapsed the year after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured.
“Waiting to hug my brother”
Khaled Hammad was in al-Katiba Square to receive his his freed brother.
“I am waiting here for the arrival of my brother Majdy Hammad, who has spent twenty years of his six-times life sentence. I am waiting for the moment to embrace him, something that I have never experienced for the past twenty years. Whatever I say cannot express my feelings or emotions at this moment.”
“I and all the Palestinian people are very excited today for this is a joyful day for all the Palestinian people, a day of victory for the Palestinian people, a day that has made all of us united — as you see, banners of all Palestinian factions are fluttering in this place. We hope that this day will bring unity among the people and the factions alike,” Hammad added.
After the long day of waiting, vans carrying the freed prisoners showed up in the back streets and an excited and anxious crowd, largely comprised of young people, rushed quickly to get a look into the buses. Many of them whistled as others set off fireworks.
The Electronic Intifada managed to get through the large crowds and spoke to those who arrived in the square. About 266 freed prisoners, including 136 from the West Bank arrived in Gaza on Tuesday.
“I cannot describe my feelings being among my brothers and sisters in Gaza. This is really a big reception that we did not expect,” Arafat al-Natshi, a freed prisoner from the West Bank city of Hebron, said excitedly. Under the deal, Al-Natshi has been forced to live in Gaza instead of being returned home to Hebron.
Mohammad Abu Awad is another freed prisoner, from the West Bank city of Nablus. “I am extremely happy to be released, something that I had not imagined because I have been sentenced to life. Yet my happiness is marred by the fact that we have left behind many brothers in jail, with whom we have spent more time than we’ve spent with our families,” Awad said.
Resistance “the only path”
Also among those who welcomed the released Palestinian prisoners were factional and governmental leaders, including top figures from Hamas. Jameela al-Shanti, minister of women’s affairs in the Hamas-led government in Gaza, hailed the prisoners’ release by means of the swap deal as a step in the right direction.
“The release of prisoners today is clear proof that the Palestinian resistance is the only path that will resolve the problems of the Palestinian people including Israeli settlement activities and the Israeli siege on Gaza,” al-Shanti told The Electronic Intifada as she stepped up onto the stage, “I would like to emphasize that we are taking this path until all our prisoners are released from Israeli jails and Palestine is liberated from the Israeli occupation.”
On Tuesday, Israel and Hamas, through Egyptian officials and with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, facilitated an agreed prisoners’ exchange. The agreement came after five years of talks, brokered by Egypt and Germany. Israel agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including women and minors, in exchange for the Israeli soldier.
Right after the soldier’s capture, Israel carried out a massive attack on Gaza, killing and injuring hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children and causing a great deal of damage to infrastructure, including power and water networks. Since then, Gaza’s 1.6 million residents have suffered power cut-offs, almost on a daily basis.
While carrying her baby in one hand and a picture of her freed brother-in-law in the other, Fawziya Abu Karsh praised Palestinian resistance fighters. She said, “May God help them all to capture ten more Israeli soldiers, so that our beloved prisoners are released from the Israeli occupation’s jails.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.