“Gaza is a big prison, but some prisons are better than others,” admits Nihad Abu Kishk, a former detainee from the West Bank who was exiled by Israel to the Gaza Strip.
“I feel uprooted and it is difficult to adapt,” says the 34-year-old who was sentenced to life in an Israeli prison but freed and sent to Gaza under terms of a prisoner swap deal with Israel late last year.
The deal saw the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for the freeing of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held in captivity by Gaza’s Hamas rulers for more than five years.
Most were allowed to go home, but 163 of them were exiled from their homes in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, and sent to live in Gaza.
“We have to make do with the situation of exile,” says Abu Kishk with a sigh.
“I suffer when I see the trouble my family has to go through to visit me, travelling through Jordan and Egypt, the exorbitant expense, and that’s if Israel lets them travel,” he said.
Since his release, Abu Kishk, a Hamas member from the northern town of Tulkarem, has married a woman who also comes from the West Bank and moved to Gaza to be with him.
But, with the extremely tight Israeli travel restrictions in place, which all but bar West Bankers from going to Gaza, there were few guests.
“There were hardly any guests except my mother and my sister-in-law, who were the only ones who could come to Gaza,” he says.
Ibrahim Elian, another former prisoner who comes from east Jerusalem, says that despite its isolation, the Gaza Strip remains “an integral part of the Palestinian nation.”
“It’s painful for my family, but I was imprisoned for 25 years,” says Elian, who was also serving life when he was freed as part of the Shalit deal.
“It’s better to be in Gaza than in the occupier’s prisons.”
Before the Shalit deal, there were already another 26 Palestinians living in exile in Gaza following the Israeli siege on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002, as well as another dozen who were banished there in recent years.
“Life in Gaza is similar to life in the West Bank, but we remain separated from our families,” admits Fahmi Knaan, spokesman for the Bethlehem deportees.
“When an exile loses a relative, the Israelis forbid him from attending the funeral,” he said, explaining Israel treats Gaza as an entirely separate entity from the West Bank.
One recent arrival who has adapted slightly better is Hanaa Shalabi, a former prisoner from the radical Islamic Jihad movement who was sent to Gaza in April for three years in exchange for halting a 43-day hunger strike.
She was also one of the prisoners freed in the Shalit swap, but was rearrested in mid February and held without trial, prompting her to begin an open-ended hunger strike in protest.
Shalabi, whose family moved from a village near Jenin in the northern West Bank to be with her following her release, says she feels neither “uprooted or imprisoned.”
“I live with my mother and father in an apartment in Gaza and I communicate with the rest of my family in the West Bank by phone and on Facebook,” she told AFP.
But she does miss her home village and says the shortage of petrol and electricity makes life hard in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
“No place is dearer to me than the house and the area where I was born and where I grew up,” she admits.
“I miss the Jenin countryside.”
Aside from the emotional cost of living in exile, the former prisoners also struggle with financial problems in Gaza, which has been languishing under an Israeli blockade since 2006.
Abu Kishk says his monthly allowance of 320 euros ($420) from the Palestinian ministry of prisoner affairs is not enough to make ends meet in Gaza, where unemployment is around 45 percent.
“I still don’t have work and I can’t set up any business enterprise,” he told AFP.
But Knaan says such difficulties are faced by everyone living in the Strip and not just those exiled from the West Bank.
“Even people from Gaza struggle to find work,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, the ex-prisoners were managing to get by, he said, adding many had finished their studies in Gaza, some had found jobs and others were working as taxi drivers to improve their living conditions.