x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Families reunited in release of prisoners from Israel

"Nothing in the world can describe how I feel", says brother of released prisoner.

A released Palestinian prisoner embraces her daughters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday.
A released Palestinian prisoner embraces her daughters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // It was a day Hassan Karajah longed for but worried would never come.

So when his sister Sumoud suddenly emerged from the crowd of prisoners released from Israel's jails yesterday and fell into his arms, his tangle of emotions left him at a loss for words.

"There is nothing in the world that can describe what I'm feeling," the 27-year-old Mr Karajah exclaimed as he embraced Sumoud for the first time in nearly two years. Though smiling, her face was pale with exhaustion.

Sumoud, a former sociology student and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was one of the 133 freed Palestinians who were reunited yesterday with their families at the Muqata in Ramallah.

Repeatedly chanting her name, Mr Karajah and other family members hoisted the slightly built woman onto their shoulders in a joyous, bouncing tribute.

Sumoud, 23, was arrested in October 2009 for allegedly trying to attack an Israeli soldier with a knife at the Qalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem, a charge that Mr Karajah and his family called a sham because she was tried and convicted in secret by a military tribunal and given a 20-year-jail sentence.

"We don't even know what the exact charges were against her," he said on Monday.

Sumoud's family was not certain whether she was one of the 27 women that was included on the list of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Until yesterday, 36 Palestinian women were being held by Israeli authorities.

"My mother couldn't sleep for four days because she was so anxious about whether Sumoud was on the list," he said.

Jaser Barghouti, 39

The joy of the Karajah family not universally shared yesterday in the West Bank.

There were the families of the some 4,727 Palestinians whose names were not on the list and who, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, remained in Israeli jails.

There also were families like those of Jaser Barghouti, one of the reported 157 released prisoners who were not allowed to return to their homes in the territory. Instead, they were transported to the Gaza Strip and released there.

Many of them were among the 300 inmates freed yesterday who were serving life sentences after being found guilty by military courts after especially violent attacks against Israelis.

"They will be celebrating in Gaza, but Jaser's family will be far away," said his sister-in-law Iman, 33.

Until his release yesterday, Jaser Barghouti was serving nine consecutive life sentences for murder and attempted murder.

A member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, Mr Barghouti was arrested in 2003 and convicted three years later for the murders of eight Israelis, some of the them soldiers, and the attempted murder of another.

His family does not dispute the fact that Mr Barghouti killed Israeli soldiers, saying his actions were necessary in the fight against Israeli occupation. They described his Gaza exile as a necessary price for a Palestinian fighter.

"It won't be family members who welcome him, but he will have Hamas and the Qassam Brigades," said Zahi, his brother.


Fakhri Barghouti and Na'al Barghouti, both in their 50s

For Mohammed Barghouti, serving time in an Israeli jail is almost a family tradition.

Now in his '50s, he has only a faint memory of his brother Fakhri and cousin Na'al ever being outside one. When they were in their teens, he surmised, before they were convicted in 1977 of killing an Israeli soldier who they said had killed a relative.

More than three decades later, Mohammed, a farmer from the West Bank village of Kobar and himself a veteran of Israeli prisons, was slightly apprehensive at the thought of a change in the status quo.

He had been at a similar juncture before. His brother and cousin had been considered in previous Palestinian-Israeli prisoner swaps, only to have their names dropped at the last minute.

"I'm so happy, but I'm scared because it's still possible they might not be coming home," he said on Monday, before the pair were released.

Fakhri and Na'al were convicted for killing in 1977 an Israeli soldier, whom they accused of murdering a member of their family seven years earlier.

Mohammed helped raise Fakhri's sons, Hadi and Shadi, who himself is serving a 27-year prison sentence in Israel. He remained in prison yesterday.

As he contemplated the release of Fakhri and Na'al yesterday, Mohammed's thoughts centred on the dozens of other relatives still locked up in Israeli prisons.

"What can we do? This is typical of our lives," he said as he harvested olives. Prison stints, he joked, are his family's "form of going on holiday".


Marwan Barghouti, 52


Like his father, Qassam knows the politics of imprisonment.

Qassam Barghouti spent four years in Israeli prison because, he said, Israel accused him of participating in the same Palestinian faction - Fatah - as his famous father, Marwan.

"I told the judge that was a ridiculous charge because your country is dealing with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the president, who's Fatah," the 26-year-old Qassam said yesterday.

His father, a popular political figure in the West Bank who was once widely touted as a future Palestinian president, was not among those released yesterday. He was jailed in 2002 following his conviction by an Israeli court for murder and attempted murder, charges he calls baseless.

In the continuing rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, Qassam saw the logic of his father's absence as he watched the newly freed Palestinian prisoners celebrate at the Muqata yesterday.

Hamas after all had included Marwan's name on a list of prisoners to be released then suddenly dropped it, according to Qassam.

A backdoor bargain between Israel and Hamas to keep sidelined a Fatah rival? "Strange," is how described it.