Conflicting emotions in Gaza over prisoner exchange
First published by the IMEU
By: Jehan Alfarra
The recently announced prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, and the hunger strike of Gazans acting in solidarity with striking Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, have elicited overlapping and at times contradictory emotions from Gaza’s residents.
Upon hearing the news of the Egyptian and German-brokered swap, Gaza celebrated with chants of joy in rallies throughout the Strip. Afnan, a girl of twenty and a daughter to Palestinian political prisoner Jalal Saqr, received the news with great disbelief. The tears rolled down her face uncontrollably as she spoke about the anticipation of hugging her father for the first time. “I was a baby when they detained my father. I am married and pregnant now and I still haven’t seen him! I cannot wait to hold him!” she added as her eyes doubled up with tears of joy. The news was not any less overwhelming to Fatima, the wife of political prisoner Salama Mesleh, than it was to Afnan. “I dream day and night of having a child. My husband and I lived together for no more than a year before he was taken. The Israeli soldiers broke into our house, searched it and turned it upside down and then took him. He entered his 19th year in prison last week, but I have always known my patience would pay off.”
To many Gazans, however, hope is the first stop on the road to disappointment, and those tears of joy can easily turn into dismay. Tayseer Shubair is a former political prisoner and one of the dozens of Gazans currently on hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Israeli custody. As we sat together in the hunger strike tent, he described to me his family’s happiness when they were told that his brother Hazem, who has been in Israeli prisons for 19 years now, will be released soon as part of the deal. Yet Tayseer’s face did not seem cheerful. I couldn’t but wonder if it was exhaustion resulting from almost two weeks of an empty stomach, but the reason for his despondency became clear when he told me that he could not find Hazem’s name on any list. “Everybody came to visit and congratulate my family for my brother’s release! What if he doesn’t get out? It will be a disaster.”
Another former political prisoner and solidarity hunger striker, Ibrahim Abu Arabiya, told me that every released prisoner is an achievement. His voice seemed to get sharper as he continued, “I congratulate the families of the said-to-be-released prisoners, but I stress the situation of the rest of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli dungeons.” Abu Arabiya, like most Palestinians, is keenly aware of the deep reach of the Israeli prison experience in Palestinian society. According to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, there are upwards of 6,000 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons. A recent study found that since the start of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, over 700,000 Palestinians had been imprisoned by Israel. “It is getting worse and more dangerous every day,” Abu Arabiya added, “and I appeal to UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, to the European Union, and to Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi to pay attention to their conditions. I also want to send a message to the Israeli public that they are responsible for this with their silence.”
Mohammed Hellis, a taxi driver, criticized the timing of the deal saying it was “well-played” by Israel. “They want to strengthen their ties with the new Egyptian leadership as well as with Hamas,” he murmured with a rusty voice. “They benefit from keeping Hamas in power and raising its popularity in Gaza, because then not only do they punish Abbas for going to the UN, but they also have an appealing reason to keep us imprisoned here in Gaza and to keep interfering with our lives.”
Amidst the joy and preparations to receive loved ones who have been gone for years, Gazans still seem quite uneasy. Some of the political prisoners will be expelled from the West Bank, and some will be deported to Gaza. As Sama, a student at the Islamic University of Gaza, put it, “they will be taken from one prison and sent to another.” Though on the whole, a sense of happiness and much-needed hope seems to overflow in Gaza and in the eyes of those in Gaza who are forgoing food in solidarity with their still-incarcerated loved ones and countrymen deprived of even the limited freedoms of life under occupation and siege.