Back from the grave
For many Palestinian prisoners sentenced to multiple life sentences, their release in a prisoners exchange deal is a miracle, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Freed Palestinian prisoner Yehiye Sinwar, a founder of Hamas's military wing, left, greets Hamas militants in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip on Thursday. Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit Tuesday
Abdel-Rahman Salah, 58, was watching the young boy who was quickly overtaking everyone to reach him, while hundreds of family members and neighbours welcomed him on the outskirts of Jenin in the north of the West Bank. Within moments, the boy he didn't know was in his embrace shouting joyfully, "Daddy, daddy!"
That is when Salah realised that his son, Fadi, who was six years old when his father was arrested, released nine years later as part of the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. As he tightly hugged his now 16-year-old boy, the tears rolled down Salah's face. He kissed his head over and over again, and Fadi kissed his father's hands. He shuts his eyes and then once again covers his son in kisses.
Salah said that occupation forces banned his family from visiting him during his incarceration and he was not allowed to receive any photographs or letters from them. He relied on his imagination to picture his children growing up. The most difficult time in prison was in 2005, he recalled, when he was listening to the news on the radio and the anchor announced the death of his eldest son, Mohamed, who was shot by the occupation army. He collapsed on the floor. The grief stricken father said that the news was a shocking blow since Mohamed was his first born and was in charge of taking care of the family after his father was arrested.
Eman, 38, said that the day the prisoner exchange took place was the happiest in her life because she was able to reunite with the man she loves after losing all hope that she would ever see him again. Eman married Jamal Hassan 18 years ago but her joy was shortlived when her husband was arrested months after their union. The Israeli military tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment, dashing all their dreams of building a home and family together.
While Hassan offered to divorce Eman so she can start a new life with someone else, she angrily refused although she knew that a life sentence meant that her husband would die in prison. She told him that she could never love anyone else. Although nearly one week has passed since her husband's release from jail, Eman still cannot believe her eyes. "Whenever I go into the bedroom and find him asleep in our house, I can hardly believe it. My heart is always pounding; I cannot believe that this is reality and not one of my recurring dreams," she said.
The overwhelming sense among the families of prisoners is that the exchange deal brought their sons back from the grave, since most of those who were released had been sentenced to life imprisonment and there was no hope that they will come out alive. This is why their welcome home was very emotional.
Salah hysterically caressed his brother Hamed's face and head, staring at him for a moment then hugging him and kissing as tears streamed down his face. Then he would ask him to stand up so he can embrace him again and hold him close. His silent weeping would suddenly erupt into loud sobbing and then wailing in front of hundreds of relatives, friends, neighbours and strangers who came to the ceremonial tent erected next to the family home in Al-Nossayrat Refugee Camp in central Gaza to receive Hamed's well-wishers. Hamed was imprisoned for 21 years as part of five life sentences, adding up to 475 years in prison.
To dispel the disapproving looks in reaction to his deep emotional reaction, Salah told them as he embraced his Hamas member brother: "God has given me back my brother from the grave; he has come back from the grave. It's a miracle; God has given him life after death. I feel that my brother has come back from the grave. I cannot believe it."
This was the feeling of most families whom Al-Ahram Weekly encountered as they were reunited with their freed sons, disembarking from buses that had transported them from Israeli jails or at ceremonial tents erected by the families to receive the many well-wishers who came to offer their congratulations.
The meeting between Abdel-Hadi Ghoneim (Abu Thar), a member of Fatah, who was sentenced to 20 life terms, or 2,064 years, and his only son Thar -- who was born on the day that his father was arrested -- was especially emotional. Thar was never allowed to see his father, making the meeting especially passionate and touching. They embraced and kissed each other in disbelief. Ghoneim's reunion with his entire family was very emotional, especially since he was the first one to ever carry out a large-scale revenge attack during the first Intifada in response to the shooting of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by the occupation Israeli army during the first two years of the Intifada.
In the summer of 1989, Ghoneim commandeered a bus transporting dozens of occupation soldiers from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and drove it over a cliff at Al-Latrun in West Jerusalem, killing 17 soldiers and injuring dozens others. Ghoneim's esteem among the Palestinian masses has remained high since that time, with tens of thousands of well-wishers from across the Gaza Strip and from all factions flooding to the ceremonial tent erected next to his family home in Al-Nossayrat Refugee Camp. Everyone was saying the same thing: "He has returned from the grave."
There were also very emotional scenes during celebrations of the return of Eid Salah. Hajja Umm Mahmoud, the owner of the grocery shop where Salah shopped before he was arrested 21 years ago, broke into tears when someone pointed out Salah to her. Umm Mahmoud said that she remembers him as a young man with black hair, but now after his release his hair has all turned white -- although the smile she fondly remembers is still there.
Not all released prisoners were reunited with their relatives. About 200 prisoners were deported to the Gaza Strip or overseas and stay in touch with their families by telephone or online. Some 165 prisoners were sent to the Gaza Strip since their families live in hotels in the West Bank in preparation of moving them to residential quarters. Ayman Qafesha, 41, who was serving a life sentence and was released after 15 years behind bars, said that the Gaza government is going above and beyond to try to provide him and fellow released prisoners with everything they need to make them comfortable. Meanwhile, the Palestinian public has given them a warm welcome home and not a moment passes without delegations and individuals coming to visit them to welcome and congratulate them on their release.
Nonetheless, Qafesha continued, they are pained to be separated from their families although they are overjoyed to be free from prison. He said that some television programmes are making it easier on them by linking them through video conferencing with their families in the West Bank, so they are able to see and speak with each other. Some families of prisoners deported to Gaza were reunited with them by traveling to Jordan and then Egypt, and arriving in the Gaza Strip from there. Israel, however, refuses to permit many such families from leaving the West Bank.
One of the challenges facing the relatives of many freed prisoners is rehabilitating those who were released and familiarising them with everyday life outside prison, especially that many of them were arrested before getting married and many are over 40 and 50 years old. Sources told the Weekly that some organisations are planning to assist released prisoners to get married, not only through funds but also through matchmaking.