x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Talk of prisoner swap raises hopes in Gaza

Parents of only female Gazan detainee look forward to her release, but Hamas says there have been no new contacts over a deal.

A Palestinian woman takes part in a protest in Gaza City against concessions in a possible prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
A Palestinian woman takes part in a protest in Gaza City against concessions in a possible prisoner exchange deal with Israel.

GAZA CITY // Wafa Ilbiss's bedroom is immaculate. There's not a speck of dust, the walls are freshly painted and the wooden furniture is new. Photos of Wafa, 25, hang everywhere, flowers adorn the cabinets and two books, the Quran and a biography of Yasser Arafat, lie on the bedside table still unread.

They are unread for a reason. Wafa has never seen the room since it was repaired after being damaged during Israel's war on Gaza last year when a neighbour's home was bombed. Wafa missed that war, as she missed four of her siblings' nuptials and the birth of six nieces and nephews. After five years in an Israeli prison, sheis the only woman from Gaza still incarcerated, and with speculation that a prisoner exchange might be imminent her parents - yet again - are balancing hope with probability.

"We are always optimistic, every time this news [of a possible prisoner exchange] comes up," said Salma, 50, Wafa's mother. In fact, Wafa's bedroom was repaired and decorated last time rumours of an exchange deal came up in February, and at great cost. In blockade-stricken Gaza, the plaster, cement and paint, not to mention the wooden furniture, used to renovate the room, are scarce and expensive commodities.

"After all her suffering, we want Wafa to come home to a place in which she can relax and recover," said her father, Ibrahim Ilbiss, 55, who runs a small grocery in the same building as the family home. The Ilbiss' may well be disappointed again, however. Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, caused a stir by announcing that Israel was prepared to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in order to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured on the border with Gaza in June 2006, exactly a year after Wafa was arrested.

But Mr Netanyahu made his announcement as thousands of Israelis marched to pressure their government to reach a deal for Cpl Shalit, and Hamas officials say the Israeli prime minister was simply playing to a domestic gallery and that there have been no new contacts about a possible prisoner exchange deal. "Netanyahu is a master of deception," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official in Gaza yesterday. "There was progress under [former Israeli PM Ehud] Olmert, but when this guy came and formed his right wing coalition, he sabotaged the deal."

Mr Yousef rejected suggestions that there was new impetus to a prisoner exchange deal and said the issue had anyway never been about the number of prisoners. "You can easily find 1,000 prisoners whose terms are up and who are looking to get released anyway. The issue is the names we have presented of long-term prisoners, who have to be freed and be allowed back to their homes and families." Israel holds more than 7,000 Palestinians in prison. The vast majority, nearly 6,500, are classified as "security prisoners" and are held mostly for their political affiliations and, in some cases, militant activities.

Wafa is held as a security prisoner. "Enraged", in her father's words, by what she saw around her in Gaza, especially the killing of Mohammad al Dura, a 12-year-old boy who was filmed at a demonstration at the beginning of the second intifada crouching behind his father, where he was shot and killed, she became highly politicised. "We all are," said Mr Ilbiss. "We live under occupation and have no allies to face Israel's might."

In June 2005, Wafa hid explosives under her clothes and went to the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel. She was caught and disarmed before anything happened and, unusually, presented to the media. "My dream was to be a martyr," she began in a televised interview. But she became tearful and nervous. At one point, she denied any intention to engage in a suicide bombing before Israeli guards intervened and ended the interview.

Since then, her family has not seen her. Before the capture of Cpl Shalit, some Gazans were allowed family visits, but since June 2006 all such permits were cancelled and no Gazans have seen their imprisoned relatives in the last three years. Mr and Mrs Ilbiss were never allowed permission to visit even before Cpl Shalit was captured, and the closest they have come is four telephone calls in the last five years.

"I see Israelis demanding that Shalit be allowed visits," said Mrs Ilbiss. "But do we not also have rights to see our relatives?" Mr Ilbiss dismissed Israel's unwillingness to release long-term prisoners in any exchange as a sign of Israeli arrogance. "They are the strong party and they don't want to be seen to be giving in to any Palestinian demands." But he also charged Palestinian leaders with not doing enough to secure a release. Specifically, he said, if the exchange was being delayed because of Israel's unwillingness to release prisoners to the West Bank, then that should be accepted.

Mostly, however, he and his wife just want to see their daughter again and for her to see her room. And asked if he would have prevented her from going to Erez those five years ago had he known, he said, quietly but emphatically, "yes". @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae