Gaza celebrated Thursday a victory one year ago when Israel began freeing 1,027 prisoners in exchange for the release of a soldier held captive by militants for five years.
Celebrations organised by the ruling Hamas movement began in the early morning with hundreds of militants from the Islamist group’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, marching through Gaza City, an AFP correspondent reported.
The snatching of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 by a group of Hamas militants and others sparked a more than five-year crisis for Israel that finally ended on October 18, 2011.
As Shalit walked free, Israel released 477 Palestinian prisoners in the first step of a two-stage operation that eventually saw more than a thousand go free, including hundreds who were serving life sentences for anti-Israeli attacks.
And at the end of a day of self-congratulation in which Hamas officials made lengthy speeches from a stage covered with Palestinian flags, Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV broadcast a movie made by the Brigades.
The film contained a recreation of the operation in which they captured Shalit on June 25, 2006, as well as original images of Shalit before being handed to Egyptian mediators in Rafah on the day of his release.
Militant groups also made use of the occasion, with the radical Popular Resistance Committees vowing to snatch more soldiers in order to free Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails.
“The way to free our prisoners will happen through kidnapping more Zionist soldiers. The resistance will not stand paralysed over this commitment,” PRC spokesman Abu Mujahed said.
“All Palestinian resistance factions are seeking to repeat the deal and capture a new Shalit. The way is clear now.”
Last year’s Egyptian-brokered deal won plaudits for Hamas from the Palestinian public, but the Islamist movement also came under fire for accepting Israel’s conditions over who would be included in the swap — a move which the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said would not happen again.
“No future exchange will take place without the release of those whom the enemy refused to free during the deal,” Brigades spokesman Abu Obeida told reporters.
“The release of the prisoners is a top priority for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades,” he said.
The Hamas leader for Gaza, Ismail Haniya, told a group of freed prisoners that he had rejected a number of alternative proposals to trade Shalit.
“Several delegations and envoys came to propose a deal to return Shalit in exchange for the lifting of the Gaza blockade and the opening of all the border crossings,” he said.
“Our response was clear and unequivocal; no compromise over the freedom of our prisoners.”
— ‘Happiness incomplete’ —
Among prisoners whom Israel refused to free are influential Palestinian leader Marwan Barghuti, jailed for his role in the second intifada, and Ahmad Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is serving time for heading a “terrorist organisation.”
Israel also conditioned its acceptance of the deal on Hamas’s agreement that around 200 of the prisoners from the West Bank and east Jerusalem be exiled to Gaza or abroad.
For Atta Filna, one of those exiled to Gaza from his home in Ramallah, the experience of being free was tinged with sadness.
“The happiness is incomplete because we are so far from our families who we miss during the big holidays,” said the 46-year-old, whose two adult children initially came to Gaza to see him but later returned to Ramallah.
“My daughter went back to be with her husband, and my son didn’t manage to adapt to life here so he also went back,” said Filna, an Islamic Jihad activist who has spent nearly 20 years in Israeli prisons.
Hilal Jaradat, a former prisoner from the northern West Bank city of Jenin has fared better, finding a wife in Gaza who is expecting their first child.
Although the former prisoners receive a monthly salary from the Palestinian Authority commensurate with the time they spent behind bars, Jaradat, 46, says it is not enough to live on.
“I had expected more financial support for us prisoners,” he admitted. “I get a monthly salary from the Palestinian Authority but that’s not enough to start a new life.”