RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Round after round of celebratory automatic gunfire punctuated the night early Wednesday as the bus carrying 21 long-serving Palestinian prisoners made its way from Israel’s Ofer Prison, near the West Bank city, to the Muqata, or government headquarters in Ramallah.
All the men were jailed for killing or being involved in killing Israelis or Palestinian collaborators, and their sentences ranged from 17 to 28 years. They were released as part of peace negotiations.
Several thousand Palestinians who were dancing, singing, chanting and waving Palestinian flags broke into cheers as the 21 men made their way to a stage where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waited to receive them.
The excitement was palpable as the exhausted men reunited with their families after being released just after midnight.
Haza’a Muhammed Saadi, from Jenin in the northern West Bank, was No 10 on the list of prisoners to be released.
Saadi was jailed for life in 1985 as a 17-year-old for his alleged part in killing two Israeli schoolteachers. Othman Bani Hassan, who was No 9 on the prisoner list, was his co-defendant accused in the killings.
“I haven’t seen my son for 15 years. I’ve been too ill to travel, to make the arduous journey to the Israeli jails where he was imprisoned as he was moved around,” Um Haza’a, or “Mother of Haza’a,” told McClatchy. “I haven’t slept all night. I was too excited and also worried that maybe in the end he wouldn’t be released – and that I might not be able to recognize him after all these years.”
One of Haza’a’s three sisters, Samira, 51, said words couldn’t describe how happy she was to see her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, when she’d last visited him in prison.
“His release came as a bit of a shock. I never imagined we’d be reunited again as a family after he spent nearly 30 years in prison. His original sentence meant he was going to die there,” she told McClatchy.
All the members of the family whom McClatchy spoke to denied that Haza’a had killed the two Israelis, saying he’d attempted to but had failed.
Haza’a, 45, said he wanted to put the past behind him and that he looked forward to a quiet life and hoped that peace between Israel and Palestine would become a reality.
“I was young when I did what I did, and I now support peace between the people of Israel and Palestine. It was 1985, before the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, and there was a lot of tension in the West Bank due to the Israeli occupation,” Haza’a told McClatchy.
“I believed I was fighting for my country and my people. God willing, the future will be different.”
While there was joy in the Muqata, with Palestinians celebrating the release of the prisoners, most Palestinians in Ramallah remained skeptical that any real progress can be achieved in peace negotiations.
A number of people McClatchy spoke to said they were bored with the whole issue, and several said the negotiations were just a repeat of earlier peace talks in which nothing was achieved.
Palestinian President Abbas worked the prisoner release for as much political mileage as possible in an attempt to show his people he’d achieved something from the Israelis as a result of the peace talks.
He’s failed to get Israel to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the negotiations. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday morning the acceleration of four new settlement projects in East Jerusalem. Israel also has refused to agree to discuss the borders of a future Palestinian state.
As nationalist songs boomed from loudspeakers Wednesday, members of the Palestinian Authority’s media team enthusiastically handed out posters of Abbas to anybody who’d take them. Several people declined, and in some cases those who accepted passed them on to others. One person hung a poster on a tree branch.
It was clear they were there to celebrate the release of their fellow Palestinians, not the achievements of Abbas. Most of those released are middle-aged men who are unlikely to return to fighting Israel. Meanwhile, more Palestinians are being arrested each day.
The Muqata’s eruption of happiness was a bubble within Ramallah, itself a bubble within the less-prosperous West Bank. Palestinians have more pressing concerns, including the fading hope of achieving independence and the dire shape of the economy in the West Bank, compared with relatively prosperous Ramallah.
Problems harvesting olives due to attacks by Israeli settlers are threatening the livelihoods of about 80,000 Palestinians. On Tuesday, settlers cut down and poisoned more than 600 olive trees in the village of Einabus, near Nablus, in the northern West Bank.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that from January to October last year, Israeli settlers damaged or destroyed more than 7,500 olive trees in the territory.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.