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Reporter's notebook

In Ramallah, prisoners return to a hero’s welcome

US administration has provided assurances that all pre-Oslo prisoners will go free, PA’s deputy minister says

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A released Palestinian prisoner is welcomed as he arrives at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
A released Palestinian prisoner is welcomed as he arrives at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

RAMALLAH — A group of men stood in a large circle at the presidential compound in Ramallah overnight Tuesday, holding hands and dancing slowly as they awaited the arrival of 11 Palestinian prisoners just released from Israeli jails as part of a deal for the resumption of peace talks.

Busloads of family members arrived at the Muqata from across the West Bank to welcome the men, carrying Palestinian flags and posters of their loved ones. They stood in groups, smiling and hugging each other under large spotlights illuminating the expansive courtyard in the dead of night.

The family of Youssef Irsheid, jailed in March 1993 for killing five Palestinians he suspected of collaborating with Israel, said they prepared a welcome party for their relative in his hometown of Jenin.

“I haven’t seen him or spoken to him on the phone in 20 years,” Irsheid’s brother Fayez told The Times of Israel, as he awaited the arrival of the prisoners. “I will kiss and hug him like any person would do with a brother he hasn’t seen in a long time.”

Fayez said that once released, he didn’t believe his brother would take up arms once again.

“He’s 46 years old; he has done enough. But it is natural for a person to defend his rights.”

The family of Youssef Irsheid awaits his arrival at the presidential compound in Ramallah, August 13, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
The family of Youssef Irsheid awaits his arrival at the presidential compound in Ramallah, August 13, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Assem, son of Hebron prisoner Jamil Abdul Nabi Natsheh, jailed in December 1992 for assisting in the murder of Shmuel Geresh, said his father had lost hope that he would ever be released. A year old when his father was jailed, Asem said he hoped to open a photography studio with his father.

“I’ve never felt such joy in my life,” Assem said.

Imad Abu-Zaytoun, the nephew of Taher Zyoud who in 1992 took part in the killing of Avraham Cohen, was standing with a group of men all wearing white T-shirts with bold red inscriptions reading “The family of Taher Zyoud welcomes you.” He said the joy over his uncle’s release would be complete when his two brothers will be released from Israeli prison too.

“The entire village is happy for his release, and will celebrate with us,” Zyoud said. “Now he will find work, open a store, nothing more.”

Zyoud may not have to work, though. The Palestinian Authority grants released prisoners a stipend which can reach NIS 7,000 ($2,000) a month, said a young policeman on shift at the event, the equivalent of a colonel’s salary.

At 1:30 a.m., Fatah officials began exiting the presidential compound to the cheers of the crowd. PA President Mahmoud Abbas came out last, holding up the arms of two released prisoners.

“These men are only the introduction,” Abbas told the crowd over loud speakers. “We say to the families of the prisoners still in jail: we will not rest until all the others are among us.”

Ziad Abu-Ein, deputy minister for prisoner affairs, said that not only the PA but also Israel stood to gain from the prisoners’ release.

“This will strengthen the course of peace and trust following the loss of trust between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships,” he told The Times of Israel. “The Palestinian people, like the Israelis, seeks peace and security, and I see this as an achievement for the [new] generations seeking peace in the region… these prisoners lived most of their lives behind bars, and we hope to quickly transform these fighters from soldiers of war to soldiers of peace.”

Abu-Ein added that the Americans have provided assurances to the Palestinian leadership on all the core issues that are to be discussed as part of the negotiations, including the release of all pre-Oslo prisoners.

“We hope that the American leadership is able to convey its message [to Israel],” he said.

To the beat of drums and the sound of bagpipes, the released prisoners joined their families, who carried them on their shoulders in a mass, emotional tumult. As the clock struck 2 a.m., fireworks went off over the mausoleum of the PA’s former president, Yasser Arafat, and the men were led to decorated, honking cars that stood ready to take them home.

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