Palestinian families are eagerly awaiting the publication of the names of the more than 1,000 detainees that are to be released in a ground-breaking prisoner swap deal with Israel.
The Israeli cabinet approved the agreement today, under which captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be freed in exchange for 1,029 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Shalit has been in Hamas captivity since June 2006, kidnapped in a cross-border raid executed by Hamas-linked militants. In response, Israel targeted Gaza’s main power station that supplies electricity to Gaza residents.
Outside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Gaza City, Um Mahmoud holds a large photograph of her son Mahmoud Rais, now aged 30. He was arrested in 2003.
“He was detained at an Israeli checkpoint inside Gaza and we never learned why he was sentenced,” she says. “This release is a victory for Palestinians and for the government.”
Um Mohamed also clutches a photograph of her husband Salama Musleh, arrested and detained by Israeli authorities in 2003 for killing an Israeli settler. She claims the settler killed seven Palestinians. “God wiling I will find my husband’s name on the list, I have been waiting 18 years,” she says, adding: “The Palestinian Authority [PA – in the West Bank] failed to release Palestinian prisoners without a peace process.”
It is not yet clear whether any children will be included in the release. At the end of June 2011, 209 Palestinian boys aged 12-17 were in Israeli detention, according to UNICEF.
During the reporting period (May and June 2011), 15 cases were documented of ill-treatment – in some cases amounting to torture of Palestinian boys aged 13-17 by the Israeli authorities during arrest, interrogation and detention. Affidavits were taken for all cases that involved the use of hand-ties (14 instances), blindfolding (11), beatings (10), stripped of clothes (10), exposure to heat/cold/rain (5), kicking (5), and verbal abuse (5).
Ex-prisoners and families of detainees have been staging a hunger strike outside ICRC headquarters in Gaza City for over a week, in solidarity with the estimated 1,000 Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails who began a massive hunger strike on 27 September protesting inhumane conditions inside the jails.
Strikers’ demands include ending the use of isolation cells and the denial of basic health treatment.
“The ICRC has facilitated medical visits to the strikers from the start,” said ICRC spokesperson Phiri. “We have shifted resources to focus on these prisoners,” he said.
According to the agreement, brokered by Egyptian intelligence, Shalit is expected to be released in about a week, along with the release of 479 Palestinian security prisoners.
Of these 479 prisoners, 96 are from the West Bank and 131 from the Gaza Strip; they will be allowed to return to their homes. Fourteen prisoners from East Jerusalem and six Israeli Arabs will also be allowed to return to their homes.
About half of the released prisoners (203) will not be allowed to return to their homes. Forty will be deported and the rest transferred to Gaza.
Twenty-seven women, all the women imprisoned in Israel for security offences, will be released. Two will be deported, one to Gaza and one to Jordan.
In two months, Israel will release another 550 prisoners of its choosing.
Over 5,200 Palestinians were being held in Israeli custody for occupation-related offences in August, including 29 women, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Of that number 272 are administrative detainees, Palestinians held by the Israeli authorities without charge or trial, allegedly for preventive purposes.
“Sigh of Relief”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal succeeded in bringing Shalit home, while maintaining the security of Israeli citizens.
Some in Israel, however, questioned the move, concerned that releasing so many Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier could encourage future abductions.
“For the last five years, the Shalit case has shaped the feelings of many Israelis towards Gaza, as well as the policies of successive Israeli governments towards Gaza,” said Sari Bashi, director of Israeli NGO Gisha, the legal centre for freedom of movement.
“The sigh of relief is palpable throughout Israel and of course the relief felt by the Shalit family and the families of the prisoners who will be released,” she said.
Israeli men and women must serve in the military. In a country where most families watch their young son or daughter leave for the army, the Shalit case has been an emotional issue.