The Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange deal has forced the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to cross a number of red lines, of which one of great importance is the freeing of Palestinian prisoners who are citizens of the Zionist state. Successive Israeli governments have sought to include Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem holding blue Israeli identity cards within the category identified as "citizens of the state" and whose future has been off the agenda, prisoners included. That has now changed as among those that Israel is now forced to release is the doyen of the Palestinian prisoners, Sheikh Sami Younis, aged 80, who has spent 29 years in prison.
The prisoner exchange deal has provoked mixed reactions in Israel, with the media discussing the price that the government of Israel has agreed to pay for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, although a survey conducted by Israeli television's Channel Ten indicates that two-thirds of Israelis support the prisoner exchange. Haaretz summarised this price in the following way: "After [we] published the list of the prisoners who Israel would release as part of the exchange deal it has become clear… from the preliminary viewing that the courts convicted 477 in the first phase with 883 years of life accumulative sentences, and 4,940 years in prison." The newspaper pointed out that 275 of those to be released were in the middle range of terms, with an average of 3.2 life sentences, and that the remaining 198 were serving an average of 24.9 years per person.
Israel has always sought to exclude its Palestinian citizens from any exchange deal in order to emphasise their separation from the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and diaspora, thus creating a sense of isolation. The agreement with the Popular Front/General Command in 1985 (known as the Jenin Operation) was the first to force Israel to release freedom fighters from amongst its own citizens. Now it has been announced that among those to be released in the latest exchange deal will be eight "Arab-Israelis", including three women, in addition to 14 prisoners from occupied East Jerusalem and one detainee from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. There are still 132 political prisoners in Israel who are Palestinian citizens of the Zionist state.
Sheikh Sami Younis is from 'Ar'ara village in Wadi Ara. An Israeli court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for the murder of an Israeli soldier in 1980; he was captured in 1983 at the age of 51 years and has now spent 29 years in prison. Two other members of his family were also convicted along with Sheikh Sami and also received life sentences.
Sami Younis was working as a taxi driver at the time of his arrest. Given his old age and the length of time that he has spent in prison it is hard for his wife and family to believe that he will soon be among them again. Halima, his wife, is also 80 years old and told Israel's Maariv newspaper that she will answer journalists' questions "but I still can't believe that my husband will be released". They have been saying that he will be released for years, she added, but he always stayed in prison.
This was echoed by Sami's grandson, Abdur Rahman , who is 23 years old and was born whilst his grandfather was in prison: "Ever since I was young I have heard that he would be released, but in the end he remained a prisoner; this makes it hard to believe that it will happen this time." Abdur Rahman heard the news of the deal through the media, "but it never crossed my mind that my grandfather would be among those to be freed".
Speaking about her husband, Halima said, "He entered prison as a father to all, and he helped the detainees to accept their situation. Everyone loved him. Indeed the relatives whose sons were imprisoned knew him from their visits and they love him; they say that he is a good person and he helped their sons in prison."
Among those from Israel to be released in the first phase of the deal is Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine member Muhklis Barghal and his comrade Muhammad Zayadah, both from the City of Lod. An Israeli court convicted them for throwing a bomb which didn't explode in Tel Aviv in 1986; they were sentenced to life. The list of prisoners from the "1948 territories" also includes Ali Umaraiyah from the village of Ibti; he was convicted in 1988 after throwing a bomb in Haifa and was also sentenced to life.
Israel and Hamas are finalising the preparations for what has been described as an unprecedented exchange of prisoners. The two sides released simultaneously the list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed, among whom are 27 women. Israel will also release a further 550 Palestinian prisoners in two months' time according to the deal agreed last Tuesday following Egyptian mediation.
One of the women prisoners, Naila Barghuthi, has been in jail since 1978. The first woman in the military wing of Hamas, Ahlam al-Tamimi, who was sentenced to 16 life sentences for her role in a bombing in occupied Jerusalem, will also be freed.
Israeli negotiator David Midan followed the preparations in Cairo and informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his return to Israel on Monday. Netanyahu was bullish and said in a statement, "The mission will be complete when Gilad Shalit returns alive and in good health to his family." According to Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence, "The agreement is final and there will be no amendment." This was a reference to eight female Palestinian prisoners whose names are not on the list for release. Everything is expected to go to plan, added the Director of the National Defence Council, Yakoc Amidror, "unless the High Court intervenes or some party in Gaza carries out provocative acts".
The release of the names of the prisoners to be released cleared the way for individuals and organisations to appeal to the Israeli High Court; they were given 48 hours to do so. Several objections have been raised since Friday. However, the court has never been called upon to review appeals against the exchanges agreed by the government in the past. The Majur Association, which is against the deal, said that the release of the prisoners will lead to more violence and kidnap attempts; the court will look into the association's appeal.
Once the release takes place, only 131 of the ex-prisoners will be allowed to return to their homes in the occupied West Bank. There will other restrictions on movement for the rest; 203 will be expelled from the West Bank, with 145 going to the Gaza Strip and 40 being sent to countries not yet named. Eighteen will be obliged to remain in Gaza for at least three years.
Israel's Army Radio announced that preparations for the release have begun, with the male prisoners being gathered together in Kitsion Prison; the women have been taken to Hasharon Prison north of Tel Aviv. Medical and identity checks will be made.
The radio report said that Shalit, 25, who has dual Israeli-French nationality and has been in captivity since June 2006, will be taken from Gaza to Egypt before his return to Israel by helicopter. He will be taken to an airbase in Tel Nov in southern Israel to meet his parents, Netanyahu, the Minister of Defence Ehud Barak and the head of the armed forces, General Benny Gantz. Hamas has prepared a ceremony to receive almost 300 of its heroes in Gaza; the streets have already been decorated with Palestinian flags.
The author is a Palestinian writer. This article was translated from the Arabic which appeared in the Lebanese newspaper As Safir, 17 October 2011
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.