A Hamas parade in Gaza City 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the new deal between Israel and Hamas to release captive soldier Gilad Schalit in return for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – the majority of whom are serving multiple life sentences for their participation in acts described as terrorist attacks against Israeli targets – there is a need for greater Israeli understanding of what these prisoners mean to Palestinian society.
Israelis’ views are limited to reports on the number of people each prisoner killed or assisted in killing. This may be normal in in other living conditions, but not in a conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Israelis are not able to see these prisoners as anything but killers or murders.
Many Israelis, including political leaders, are not aware of the Palestinian position regarding prisoners in Israeli jails.
The vast majority of Israelis consider all elements of the Palestinian struggle as terrorist acts, but the Palestinians consider armed struggle the only path to liberty.
Throughout decades of Israeli occupation, more than 250,000 Palestinians
have been arrested and spent time in Israeli jails. These prisoners
include young and old, men and women, liberals and fundamentalists,
Muslims and Christians, university professors and illiterates, doctors
and cancer patients, lawyers and thieves, and Palestinians who hold
Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, US and French nationalities. The list
even includes people with no nationality at all.
During their imprisonment, many Palestinians have continued their
education and earned diplomas from Israeli universities. As such, there
is no stigma attached to Palestinians who have served prison terms in
Released prisoners are seen as heroes in all sectors of Palestinian
society. Palestinians refer to Israeli prisons in their literature as
“Bastilles” or “Colleges of Struggle.”
The Palestinian public sympathizes strongly with the prisoner movement.
One of the main reasons for this sympathy is the fact is that almost
every Palestinian family has had a member in these jails. Another is
that prisoners were practically the only sector that could break the
political boundaries between the warring political groups. Prisoners
could lead an initiative to end the dispute between Hamas and Fatah that
was accepted by all parties outside the prisons.
Prisoners are considered leaders in the political parties. Many of the
commanders of the security forces in the Palestinian territories have
been arrested by Israel. Some of the Palestinian negotiators were
prisoners. Even some Palestinian members of the Geneva Peace initiative
The prisoners being released in the coming days will be greeted by
non-stop celebrations, gatherings, congratulatory delegations and
workshops. Their families have already begun preparations to find them
brides so they can start normal lives and build families. This is not
going to be difficult, because of the age of the prisoners and because
many young Palestinian women consider such unions a mark of pride and
Gaza, meanwhile, has made special preparations to receive the West Bank
prisoners who will live in Gaza as per the swap details. This is going
to be hard with the ongoing housing problem there, resulting from
construction materials not being allowed into Gaza. At least one West
Bank family has come to Gaza to receive their son. Many other families
will make the long trip via Jordan and Egypt and most will consider
moving to Gaza permanently.
The support for prisoners among Palestinians is not a temporary
phenomenon that will end weeks or months after the swap. It is
traditional to read poems in praise of the struggle and steadfastness of
There are dozens of songs dedicated to them.
Political parties consider the prisoners’ leverage when gauging public opinion.
Hamas is holding out hopes that this deal will bring a turnaround
similar to the 2006 elections, a boost to its popularity in Gaza after
years of deterioration in the organization’s popularity in Gaza after
taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007 following its 2007 takeover of the
Many parties are waiting to benefit from this swap, but most Gaza
residents are dreaming today of the end of the siege now that Gilad
Schalit is no longer held prisoner here. For us, the main question that
remains is how long Gazans will have to wait to hear the whistle of
ships anchored in the Gaza port.The writer is an aid worker and a native of the Gaza Strip.