Despite divisions between the rival Fatah and Hamas groups over resuming negotiations with Israel, both their flags were embracing at the Erez checkpoint separating Israel and Gaza early Wednesday morning, as hundreds of people waited for Palestinian prisoners recently released by Israel to arrive.
Ala Shaath, a 21-year-old man, was waiting at Erez with his sister and mother for his father, who was jailed when Ala was just five months old. With tears of happiness in his eyes, Ala said: “Last time I saw my father was 10 years ago, when I visited him in his jail. I am so happy that finally I will have a father and I can hug him like all other boys. I used to feel jealous from my friends during the feasts, when their fathers buy them new clothes and accompany them to visit relatives. I still can’t believe that finally he is here.”
His 27-year-old sister, Reem, was carrying her baby and crying while she waited for her father. “I graduated from the university and got married and I got a baby without the attendance of my father,” she said. “I am so happy for the release, but I want all the prisoners to be freed.”
Fireworks exploded and the crowd began chanting as soon as the prisoners reached the Palestinian side of the crossing. People swarmed the bus carrying the prisoners, and the Hamas police were unable to stop them.
In Deir al-Balah city in the central Gaza Strip, a reception tent was set up for visitors to see Ali al-Rai, who was sentenced to life in jail in 1993. Now he has been released after 20 years in prison, and is finally with his nine sons and daughters, most of whom are now married.
Ali says he is depressed because he was not able to see his children growing up. “My happiness is still diminished because I left my brothers and loved ones while in the Israeli jails.” He added: “I have not regretted that I struggle for my people, and I will continue my peaceful struggle until freeing my brothers.”
Ali, surrounded by Fatah flags as his sons distributed sweets and a patriotic Fatah song played in the background, said he could “touch the sadness in the eyes of my people, as they suffer from poverty and unemployment and they can’t get their daily life needs”.
Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government’s deputy foreign minister, said: “We welcome freeing the Palestinian prisoners, but this freedom should not be for a political price at the expense of constant Palestinian national principles. The ministry of prisoners will do its best to support the freed prisoners in all aspects.”