Near Ofer Prison, throngs gather ahead of inmate release

Hamas flags outnumber Fatah flags as supporters celebrate prisoner exchange deal, chant "the people want another Gilad Schalit.”

By
October 19, 2011 02:34
Supporters wait for release of prisoners near Ofer

Supporters wait for release of prisoners near Ofer prison. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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The crowd of hundreds outside the gate of Ofer Prison next to the Palestinian town of Beitunya had been dancing, singing and partying for hours by mid-morning on Tuesday, waiting for the release of more than a hundred Palestinian prisoners to be released to the West Bank as part of the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange.

All throughout the crowd, relatives and supporters wiped tears from their eyes as a few young men circled the crowd handing out chocolates.

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“It’s great excitement. We can’t put it into words,” said 17-year-old Dubai resident Imam Assad, who came to Israel by way of Jordan with her mother earlier this week upon hearing of the impending release of her uncle, Nidal Zalum. “We’ll have a party. We’ll have the whole family together and finally he’ll be able to get married, have children, eat well, have a normal life.”

But a little after 11 a.m., border policemen on duty informed the crowd that the prisoners would not be driven to the Beitunya exit, and instead were on their way to nearby Ramallah, where they would be hosted at a Fatah-led celebration at the Mukataa governmental complex.

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As most of the crowd filtered away, a small group of young men began throwing stones over the fence at police and soldiers, who quickly fired tear gas and stun grenades. Within minutes, the prison gate victory party was dispersed, and convoys of honking cars covered in Hamas and Palestinian national flags made their way just minutes down the road to join thousands welcoming the prisoners.

Assad and her mother, Fayha, vowed that Nidal would not return to a life of violence. Fayha said that throughout her brother’s imprisonment, their mother has suffered from a series of health problems.

When asked what her uncle was imprisoned for, Assad said “it’s a long story, I don’t want to say.”

Though Assad was not comfortable talking about her uncle’s offense, according to the list released by the Prisons Service on Saturday evening, prisoner no. 240 Nidal Abd al- Razzaq Izzat Zalum was sentenced in 1989 to two life sentences for murder, conspiracy, attempted murder and attacking a civil servant, following a stabbing attack on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in May that year that left two Israelis dead and three wounded.

Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit

Another happy reveler at Beitunya on Tuesday was Fadi Maharzeh, awaiting the release of Irina Polischuk, a relative by marriage.

Maharzeh was holding a picture of Polischuk and was standing with her 10-year-old daughter Razadeh, who he said “has only seen her mother in prison. Her father is still in prison, and for her to have her mother back means she won’t be alone.”

Maharzeh also expressed some desire for a future prisoner exchange, saying it is the only way that Polischuk’s husband, Ibrahim Sarhana, will be released from the multiple life sentences he is currently serving.

The Ukrainian-born Polischuk was sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in prison for accessory to murder, after she helped her husband deliver a suicide bomber to Rishon Lezion in 2002. Two Israelis were killed in the subsequent blast.

Hamas flags outnumbered Fatah flags by a wide-margin outside the prison on Tuesday, and dozens of men, women and children proudly wore the terror group’s green bandana or had flags wrapped around their bodies. There was even a single, large Turkish flag that was held aloft next to the gate.

Also popular were yellow flags bearing the likeness of former Fatah-Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian national symbol serving five life sentences for murder. Barghouti was not included in the deal.

A theme of the celebration seemed to be one of victory for the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, and positive proof that kidnapping Israelis reaps heavy dividends. The crowd on several occasions chanted “the people want another Gilad Schalit”, and photos and posters of Palestinian symbols not included in this prisoner exchange, like Barghouti, were very common.

On a number of occasions, small groups of people chanted “Khaybar, Khaybar ya Yahud [Jews]” a reference to the Muslim expulsion of Jews from the Saudi desert oasis of Khaybar in the seventh century.

Initially, word had circulated among the crowd and journalists present that busloads of prisoners would be pulling out of the complex around 8 a.m., welcome news to those who had begun gathering as early as 5 a.m. As the crowd grew it became more rowdy and began to surge against the prison gate, blocking the entry of an International Committee of the Red Cross van attempting to enter to check the prisoners one last time. One of the two speakers-laden vans repeatedly pleaded with the crowd to make room for the vans, each time following the plea by pumping the ear-splitting victory tunes again, perhaps sending a mixed message.

A little after 11 am, Border Patrolmen on duty informed the crowd that the prisoners would not be exiting through the Beitunia exit, and instead were on their way to Ramallah, where they would be hosted at a Fatah-led celebration at the Mukata governmental complex.

As most of the crowd filtered away, a small group of young men began throwing stones over the fence at police and soldiers, who quickly fired tear gas and stun grenades. Within minutes, the prison gate victory party was dispersed, and convoys of honking cars covered in Hamas and Palestinian national flags made their way just minutes down the road to join thousands welcoming the prisoners.

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