For Palestinians released in Gilad Shalit prisoner swap, freedom is relative

The roughly 100 former Palestinian prisoners who were released to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Gilad Shalit deal are out of prison, but still don't walk entirely free.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Wafa Al-Biss, a freed Palestinian prisoner, waves a Palestinian flag at her house as she is greeted upon her return in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel's borders in opposite directions on Tuesday as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.

Of the roughly 100 former Palestinian prisoners released in the West Bank and East Jerusalem yesterday, half will remain under Israeli security restrictions that include limits to their movements and regular check-ins with Israeli authorities.

The restrictions were part of the deal reached by Israel and Hamas that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Mr. Shalit and 477 of the prisoners were released Tuesday.

Fifty-five of the detainees were required to sign documents promising not to return to terrorist activities and to obey the security conditions of their release. The security restrictions vary based on a risk assessment completed by the Israel Prison System, with some barred from leaving their village or city.

Those Israel is less concerned about will only be required to present themselves every two or three months at the nearest office of the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, says spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar.

For Nael Barghouti – who served 34 years in an Israeli prison, making him the longest held Palestinian detainee – that will mean visiting the Israeli settlement of Beit El.

Mr. Barghouti returned to his village of Kobar, near Ramallah, on Tuesday, and will not be allowed to leave the area again for three years. If he violates these conditions, Barghouti will have to return to jail to finish the life sentence he was given for his role in the death of an Israeli soldier in the West Bank in 1978.

Restrictions 'unfair'?

Some say the restrictions are unfair, and that if the prisoners are truly freed, they should not be so tightly controlled.

“It’s not fair to make special conditions for some prisoners,” says Ziad Abu Ein, Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs, pointing out that many prisoners will not even be able to travel to neighboring cities for work. “You released him, so you should give him all the opportunity to live like other people, to be married and have a house.”

Direct monitoring

Those with special security arrangements will essentially remain under direct monitoring of Israeli authorities, says Mr. Abu Ein. Israeli forces, who patrol the West Bank, will decide if prisoners broke the conditions of their release, he says.

But Israel says these restrictions are necessary to protect its citizens because, left alone, some of the former prisoners may soon begin plotting attacks again.

“A high proportion, we’ve learned from past experience, return to activities in terrorist organizations,” says Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. The arrangements allow Israel to “monitor activities” of the released prisoners, he says.

The restrictions have a precedent. Previously, some prisoners and detainees of Israel have been transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) but required to report, or even sleep in, PA police stations.

Although Israel is relying heavily on the PA to keep an eye on the released prisoners' activities in the West Bank, Israel will be solely responsible for enforcing these security arrangements, Mr. Inbar says. The PA was not consulted about the terms of the release and will not be involved in policing them, Mr. Abu Ein says.

'High threat' prisoners

The prisoners deemed by Israel as "high threat" – about 200 of the 477 – will not return home, at least not immediately. Most of them were sent to the Gaza Strip, which is deemed a more secure place for them because of the strict procedures for entering Israel from the Gaza Strip and the massive cement wall that separates the territory from Israel. Some of them are permanently barred from returning home, while others are only stuck in Gaza for a few years.

About 40 prisoners deemed the highest risk were sent aboard to Turkey, Qatar, Syria, and Jordan.

“We didn’t want to see hardcore terrorists back in the West Bank, where they could more easily target Israelis,” says Mr. Regev. “It’s clear from the celebrations yesterday in Gaza that these murderers are not showing remorse for killing innocent civilians and Hamas calls them heroes. Anyone that had the illusion that Hamas is somehow moderating their position, this should serve as a wake-up call.”

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