When news that 11 Palestinian prisoners had crossed the Beitunya checkpoint hit the square in front of the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah late Tuesday night the crowd burst into applause, a troupe of bagpipe players started marching, and revelers held each other aloft cheering the men’s impending return.

Just like that, the mood at the Mukata changed. What had been a low-key celebration attended by a few hundred people became the triumphant moment Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hoped for – if a far smaller affair than if it had been held in the daytime hours.

Within the hour it was over – Abbas had concluded his remarkably short speech and the 11 security prisoners had been spirited away to their families, after having been carried on the shoulders of loved ones in circles around the plaza, giving interviews to dozens of television channels and beaming for the cameras.

Perhaps reflecting the cynicism about the negotiations in Washington, neither Abbas nor almost any of the released prisoners observed by The Jerusalem Post mentioned the peace talks that their very release was a precondition of, preferring instead to praise the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, and issue calls for the release of all Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Such calls were repeatedly made in a series of shouldertop interviews by Taher Zaboud, who was set for release in February 2014 after he was imprisoned in February 1993 for his role as the accomplice in the murder of Avraham Cohen.

When asked what he thought of the peace talks set to move forward on Wednesday he gestured that he did not hear the question, and continued towards the exit from the compound.

The celebration bore a marked contrast to the festivities that greeted the first round of prisoners released in the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange in October 2011.

Then, the square was jammed with an afternoon autumn crowd of loved ones, supporters, journalists, politicians and everyday Palestinians, with a healthy showing of Hamas flags. There were no Hamas flags on display Tuesday night in Ramallah, a night whose victory was wholly that of the PA.

All in all it seemed a muted triumph. While the prisoners were all men with blood on their hands, a number were already up for release in the coming months or years, none were Israeli citizens, and none residents of East Jerusalem.

The feeling, as opposed to October 2011, was not one of victory brought through the extracting of an especially heavy cost from Israel, rather, a small scale victory that may or not be part of a larger picture that neither side can yet predict.

Ikhlas Natsheh of Hebron came with several members of her family Tuesday night to greet her husband, Jamil Abdel Wahab Natsheh, who in December 1992 was charged with accessory to murder for acting as the escape driver for a shooting attack against IDF soldiers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which left one soldier dead and another wounded.

The 42-year-old wife said that because her husband was set to be released only four months later, “people will think this a small period of time, but every day is a long time for a prisoner living the life he’s living,” adding that the family didn’t expect him to be released in this round.

She said her spouse hopes to be a father figure for his two children, one of whom was two years old when he was imprisoned and the other seven months old. When asked what she thinks Israelis should make of the celebration at the square, she said “we want to tell them that we are sitting on our land, they started it and they forced us to try to struggle to liberate our land, so we had to do this.”

Speaking in Hebrew, Esmat Mansour, who was imprisoned for accessory to murder in helping kill Haim Mizrachi, said “even if we have murdered, we fought for our people.

We are freedom fighters, we are not murderers, we stood up and protected our people.”

A voice of support for the diplomatic process did come from released prisoner Salah Mugdad, who was imprisoned in 1993 for bludgeoning 72- year-old hotel security guard Israel Tenenbaum to death with an iron bar before stealing a TV from the hotel.

Speaking to Israeli reporters he said, in Hebrew, “we need to learn to live together, we have no other choice. We are two people that need to live together. I don’t believe in violence anymore. We will sit at a table and solve everything. We don’t need violence.”

Nida Touma contributed to this report.


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