Released Palestinian prisoners with President Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqata, greeted by cheering family members and supporters, 14 August 2013. (Photo: Allison Deger)
Mahmoud is 16 and in a few minutes he will hug his father for the first time. They have never touched, at least not that Mahmoud can recall because for most of his life his father was incarcerated in an Israeli prison.
“I am the youngest son. I was only three or four years old when my father was arrested. I don’t even remember it.” During family visits a glass wall separated father and son, voices heard through telephone alone. But now that Sabih Abed Hammed Borhan is being released late Tuesday night, Mahmoud will finally have his first memory of a paternal embrace.
Borhan is one of the 26 Palestinian prisoners benefiting from a “goodwill gesture” by Israeli officials as a prelude to direct peace negotiations. He and the eleven others were taken to Ofer prison just after 12 am on Wednesday morning. They were then transferred to the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah for a raucous reunion. The remaining 14 were driven to the Gaza Strip via the Erez Crossing in white vans with thin strips of tinted glass for windows. Israeli officials said the nighttime release and dark windows were to prevent a repeat of the Shalit exchange photo-ops of Palestinians flashing the “V for victory” hand sign. For many Israelis the release is considered a free pass for those who convicted violent crimes.
Parade of bagpipers preform moments before the released Palestinian prisoners arrive at the Muqata.
Palestinians cheer in anticipation of their family member’s release from prison.
Before his 2001 arrest at a flying checkpoint in the West Bank on his way to work, Borhan had already served 13 years in prison. Most of his adult life was spent in a dingy cell away from his family. He’s done time in nearly every Israeli detention facility. In his first conviction, Borhan was given six life sentences. Then he was let out early in 1994 by yet another prisoner release timed with peace talks. But during the second Intifada he was re-arrested and under military order 186 his first sentence was reinstated alongside his latest conviction.
The opening six years were the toughest, though, said Borhan’s family. His mother and sister were denied visits that Israel grants to close relatives. Typically “first degree” family members can secure weekly permits to the prison from the International Committee for the Red Cross. But in Borhan’s case inexplicably both mother and sister were deemed not affable under the policy.
Still Mahmoud was able to make the five-hour trip from Kfar Ra’a near Jenin to gaze at his father through a transparent shell. From the age of four Mahmoud would go as often as he could, but after he turned 16, the visits stopped. “They do this a lot actually,” noted a representative from Addameer, a prisoners’ rights group, explaining at age 16 when Palestinians register for an ID card, entry into Israel becomes complicated. During Ramadan for example, children under 16 can enter Jerusalem on Fridays. But after 16, Palestinians have to file for permits, as an adult would, with adult permit rejection rates.
“The hope was there,” said Hanan Esmir, 46, Borhan’s sister. “We would always pray that he would get out.” Esmir last saw her brother six months ago. At the Muqata she sits with other women waiting on loved ones. A few seats away is Ikhlas Natsheh, 42, her sister who is preparing to greet both a husband and a brother.
Ikhlas’s husband Jamil Abdel Wahab Natsheh had one of the longest incarcerations of the group. He was arrested in 1991 for accessory to murder in the death of an IDF solider. He was part of the get-away car. For this he was sentenced to a steep penalty of over 20 years. Yet for the Israeli public the consensus is that Israel is letting murders and terrorists get off easy. Family members of deceased Israelis killed by Palestinians in this prisoner release petitioned against the “goodwill gestures.” They argued crimes were too grave and threat too great for early discharge. However, hours before the men were driven out of a detention facility in Ramle, Israel the High Court rejected the petition.
Although Natsheh’s family was elated, Ikhlas was quick to point out her husband was only four months away from completing his sentence anyway. In fact many of the prisoners released were a few years from finishing out their terms, casting doubt on the magnitude of the Israeli move which functioned as a replacement for the Palestinian demand of a stop to settlement construction in order to proceed with peace negotiations. In addition to the prisoner release, this week Israel also broke news on expanding settlements and even held a groundbreaking ceremony in occupied East Jerusalem.
Released prisoner (right) hugs relative at a welcoming ceremony at the Muqata.
Palestinians carry released prisoner through crowed to reunite the former detainee with his family.
Just before 1 am supporters and family members congregated towards a small podium at the edge of the Muqata. Social media updates indicated the white vans driving the men were already at Ofer prison, the transfer point from Israeli custody to Palestinian. Mahmoud Abbas then emerged from a door in the stone wall behind the platform, along with the released men. Everyone went wild and for a moment the president had a mandate from his people. “Abbas, Abbas!” was chanted as if the Palestinian leader himself had brokered the deal, rather than the Israeli Prime Minister’s office deciding all of the terms of the conditional release.
“Tell the released prisoners, and we tell you that the rest of the prisoners will come out. You are just the beginning and the rest will come,” said Abbas before being swept away in a convoy. After the prisoners who were on stage with him rushed down a small detachable staircase, they were lifted by crowds and literally carried towards their families. It was all tears and hugs. This was family reunification under occupation. Sure these men are called national heroes, and there were some flags for political parties, but mood was more personal: husband kissing wife, mother caressing child, and Mahmoud finally feeling his father’s skin against his.
Once the family members finished taking turns tightly holding the now freed men, friends and unknown supporters shook their hands and pressed their cheeks to one and another. Then just as they were carried into the crowd, the newly released were lifted again and carted to a metal detector exiting the Muqata. The whole event lasted about an hour.
All photographs are by the author on August 13-14, 2013.