Gilad Shalit deal: West Bank prepares to welcome Palestinians home

West Bank Palestinians whose family members are on the list of prisoners to be exchanged for Gilad Shalit are joyful. For those not on the list, it is bittersweet.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinians take part in a protest calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Oct. 17.

While Israelis demonstrated outside the country's Supreme Court, demanding that it block the release tomorrow of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some Palestinians excitedly prepared for the homecoming of family members they haven't seen in decades.

In the Palestinian village of Kobar, eight miles northwest of Ramallah in the West Bank, Hanan Barghouti tied green Hamas flags around the heads of her children, nieces, and nephews. “The house has been empty without my brothers,” says Ms. Barghouti, who is a relative of Marwan Barghouti, possibly the most high-profile of all the Palestinian prisoners, and not included in this week's swap.

Both her brothers are serving sentences in Israeli prisons. Nael Barghouti, the longest serving Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, will be released tomorrow after 34 years. His release is part of the prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel that has planned to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the high-profile Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in 2006. It is the largest number of Palestinian prisoners ever exchanged for one Israeli.

The walls of Hanan Barghouti's home are covered with pictures of Nael and her other brother, Omar, who will not be released. Hanna lays sweets on the table and cleans the apartment they have built for her brother, which is filled with neighbors and extended family dropping by to offer congratulations and assistance.

Nael Barghouti was 19 when he was given a life sentence for his role in the killing of an Israeli solider in the West Bank in 1978. He will be released just weeks before his 54th birthday.

Free, but not headed home

A total of 477 Palestinian prisoners will be released this week, but not all of them will be seeing their friends and family soon. About 200 of them, such as Muna Amna, who lured a 16-year-old Israeli boy to a violent death via a chat room in 2001, will be freed but sent to the Gaza Strip, rather than her West Bank village.

Also in this category is the iconic Abed al Aziz Salaha, who showed crowds the literal blood on his hands after the killing of two Israelis in Ramallah in 2000. The photo of him holding his blood-covered palms out a window became a key image of the second Intifada and a symbol of terror for many Israelis. He too is being sent to Gaza, not his native West Bank.

Although Hamas negotiators agreed to these conditions, Sahar Frances, the director of Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, says this deportation is illegal.

“A large number of these prisoners will be deported away from their homes,” says Ms. Frances. “At the end, forced deportation [from a home country] is a violation of international law.”

While international rights organizations often criticized the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli jails and the complete incommunicado detention of Mr. Shalit in Gaza, few have commented the deal, which is regarded as a success by most in the international community.

About 200 male prisoners from Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the West Bank (plus one other female prisoner) will be deported. Most will be sent to Gaza, but 40 will be split between Egypt and Turkey. Some will be forbidden from ever returning to their homes and villages, but others will be allowed to return after three to five years.

Frances explains that it will be difficult for the families of those who are deported to see the freed prisoners because of the near impossibility for Palestinians with West Bank or Jerusalem identification to secure permits to visit Gaza and other Arab countries.

Israel says the deportation of these prisoners is necessary to ensure they are not able to commit further crimes.

“We did an evaluation to assess the risk of repeating terrorism for these prisoners,” says Neta Barak, a lawyer working in the pardons department of Israel’s Ministry of Justice. “The highest risk prisoners will be sent to Egypt or Turkey and the middle risk to Gaza. The rest are going home.”

The rest in prison

More than 4,000 others will remain in prison. Ala’a Saify’s brother, Ahmed, was arrested in 2009 after attacking a settler just west of his native Ramallah. Then 19, he was sentenced to 17 years in the nearby Ofer Prison for attempted murder.

“We heard about this deal, and my mother told me ‘quickly call your friends find out if your brother is on the list’,” says Mr. Saify. He ran to his computer and poured over the list – one, twice, three times – but Ahmed's name was not there.

Saify says he was disappointed, but not shocked. “This was Hamas’ VIP list. There were only about 45 Fatah prisoners out of over 400,” says Saify, whose family supports Hamas’s rival Fatah movement. “But really we don’t know why he’s not on the list. I can only guess.”

An additional 550 prisoners will be selected for release by Israel over the next two months. It will include all minors being held by Israel, and all but eight of the Palestinian women in detention, according to Frances, despite earlier reports that all women would be released.

The criteria for choosing these prisoners has not yet been defined, Barak says, but they will likely be those serving shorter sentences who “do not have blood on their hands.”

Many of the thousands remaining in Israeli prisons are serving multiple life sentences and are unlikely to be released alive unless their number is pulled for future prisoner swaps.

“We are not hopeful,” says Saify, whose brother was not released this time. “We can only wait and see.”

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