Gaza families wait for release of prisoners in Hamas-Israel deal

Families with loved ones in Israeli prisons have taken part in a hunger strike at the Red Cross in Gaza City, as many more wait to see if their relatives will be released from jail. 

Shadi Alqarra The Electronic Intifada

Mothers and wives of Palestinian prisoners rapidly gathered outside the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) this week, after they heard news about a swap deal between Israel and Hamas. These women have not seen their loved ones for five years.

For the past five years, the families of 950 Palestinian prisoners from Gaza have been protesting weekly outside the ICRC’s headquarters, demanding their right to visit their sons, husbands and relatives inside the Israeli jails, a right denied to them by Israel.

This week’s protest carried much hope for all such families, as both Israel and the ruling Hamas party have recently agreed to a prisoner swap deal. Under it, Hamas will free the captured Israel soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees.

“Our children have been caught by Israel while they were struggling for their own legitimate rights, including the right to statehood and to return back to their historical homeland, but the captured soldier was captured on his tank, firing on us,” Um Ibrahim Abu Ali, mother of prisoner Ibrahim Abu Ali, told The Electronic Intifada.

“I would like to send out a message to Israeli mothers that we Palestinian mothers continue to suffer and have endured a lot of agony for many years now. I don’t think you Israeli mothers could endure such suffering. We are many mothers here in Gaza and there are many more in the West Bank. I am very concerned now as to whether my son will be included in the swap deal or not,” she said.

Um Ibrahim’s son, Ibrahim is now serving a life-time imprisonment in the Israeli Nafha Prison. He has been held for the past 19 years.

Um Fares Jaber, mother of Mohammad Jaber from the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, couldn’t wait until daybreak. On Tuesday night, Um Fares took a cab and came right away to the ICRC headquarters, anxious to find out whether Mohammad would be listed among those who would be released.

She said, “I came here yesterday night right after I heard news about the swap deal. I am very excited, happy, worried and confused for I do not know whether he will be released or not. I came here along with my daughter at night and as you know we are all waiting here, maybe we will hear some good news.”

Um Fares Jaber added that her son was imprisoned nine years ago near the boundary between Gaza and Israel. Mohammad has been sentenced to an 18-year-long imprisonment in Nafha.

Deprived of being a mother

Fatma, wife of prisoner Salama Abdallah Mesleh, who was imprisoned 19 years ago from the Johr al-Deek village south of Gaza City, spoke with tears in her eyes.

“I do hope that my husband will be released. You can’t imagine, you can’t imagine, he was imprisoned a year after we got married. All I hope is that he is released, so that at least I get a child from him. I have been deprived of being a mother because of his imprisonment but what can I say? I have been waiting for him for so long. I want a baby. However, I would like to say that our happiness cannot be completed without seeing all prisoners released and hope that all Israeli jails are cleared of them. Inshallah [God willing], hopefully,” Fatma said while carrying a portrait of her husband, who is serving a lifetime imprisonment in Nafha.

For the past two weeks, Tayseer Shbair has been taking part in a hunger strike in front of the ICRC’s premises along with several others, in protest at Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners.

“My brother Hazem has been jailed for a life-time imprisonment inside the Nafha prison. [I was told that] when the prisoner swap deal was announced, many people from the neighborhood in my town, Khan Younis, came to my home in a gesture of solidarity,” Shbair told the Electronic Intifada, while lying on a bed along with a few other protesters.

Nidal Asarfeeti said that his son Ali was sentenced to a 16-year term and that he has already served 10 years. Ali is detained in the Hiqidar prison in the Negev (Naqab) desert.

“Although the prisoner swap deal can be considered a sort of achievement, I can say it is still not meeting all our demands, mainly the return of those prisoners to their own family homes, not to the West Bank or to Gaza,” Asarfeeti said. “Yet, I feel happy only for the release of all women prisoners. Yesterday, I was asked whether my son Ali is listed. I said hopefully he will be released, though I just hope that other prisoners who still have many years to wait until their terms come to an end, will be listed.”

False claims by Israel

Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza and himself a former prisoner, said, “This swap deal means that all Israeli claims about what Israel has long contended that prisoners whose hands are stained with Israeli blood, can never be released, are false. As you see, Israel has eventually agreed to release hundreds of such prisoners.

“The swap deal has proved that Israeli stubbornness has been meaningless for eventually Israel agreed to the exchange, following five years of relentless mediated talks between Israel and those capturing Shalit,” he added. “The suffering of Shalit’s parents is exactly the same of Palestinian mothers, fathers, wives and children. Israel needs to reconsider its policies and comply with human rights obligations.”

The ruling Hamas party in Gaza, which accepted the deal following the mediation of Egypt, sent out a message to both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and to Israel.

Speaking to the Electronic Intifada at the entrance of the Nuseirat refugee camp, where hundreds of Hamas supporters including senior leaders were celebrating the prisoner exchange on Tuesday night, Dr. Salah al-Bardaweel, head of Hamas’s parliamentary bloc at the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, said, “I would stress clearly that our prisoners are freedom fighters, therefore they should not remain in prisons any longer, despite the fact that Israel has been misleading world public opinion that these prisoners are criminals. We would like to assert that if Israel continues with its intransigence and arrogance towards the Palestinian people’s rights, we believe that the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance will eventually clear Israeli jails of such prisoners.”

PA urged to stop “security coordination”

Al-Bardaweel called on the Palestinian Authority — controlled by rival party Fatah — to stop what he termed security coordination with Israel and to refrain from reining in Palestinians who resist the occupation in order to pressure Israel to accept new terms for the release of prisoners, similar to those included in the swap deal.

“I would like to congratulate the Palestinian resistance for such a victory that has ensured the release of those who have been long imprisoned and have missed important moments among their family members,” Um Tareq Abu Shallouf , mother of Tareq Abu Shallouf from the southern Gaza Strip, who is serving a lifetime imprisonment in Nafha, said.

According to PCHR Israel currently holds 6,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — including dozens of women and children prisoners.

The latest swap deal between Israel and Hamas would see the release of 1,027 prisoners, including 27 women. The number of Palestinian prisoners from the Gaza Strip stands at 950. All of them have been deprived visits by their families since Shalit was captured five years ago.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.