Free at Last

The buzz of the week has been, without a doubt, the prisoner swap reached between Hamas and Israel. On October 18, over 400 Palestinian prisoners, some of them serving several life sentences, will walk out of Israel’s prison gates free men and women, hopefully for the last time. In two months, the second phase of the swap will be completed. Over 500 more prisoners will be released –” this time at Israel’s choosing –” in exchange for one lone soldier, the now infamous Gilad Shalit.

The buzz has not been all positive, however, from either side of the fence. There are those Israelis who passionately oppose the release of Palestinian prisoners involved in attacks on Israelis. There are families who lost their loved ones in suicide bombings that say the prisoners’ release is an insult and an outrage to their memory. And there are those right wing Israelis who would oppose just about anything that has to do with Palestinians regardless of the circumstances.

Among the Palestinians, there are concerns and criticisms too, many of them well founded. While 1,027 prisoners is a good deal no matter which way you slice it, there are many strings attached that puts a damper on the overall feeling of joy at these men and women’s release.

For one, 40 of those released will be exiled from their homeland. Over 100 more from the West Bank and Jerusalem will be sent to the Gaza Strip. The rest will be allowed to return home but some will have to adhere to conditions such as reporting back to Israeli authorities on a regular basis.

Then there are those prisoners who were supposed to be at the top of the list, prisoners who, without them, no deal was ever to be made. These include high profile prisoners such as Fateh’s Marwan Barghouti and the PFLP head Ahmad Saadat, currently on hunger strike for the 22nd day.

In any case, what is done is done and the joy of any Palestinian prisoner being released from Israeli jails is a joy all Palestinians feel collectively. Just as Gilad Shalit is seen by his fellow countrymen as a soldier on duty, so do Palestinians view the prisoners as soldiers of a noble cause. If it were not for Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its total dominance over the lives of all those under its military rule, our men and women would be living normal lives among their family, friends and society.

This is the point that needs to be made over and over again. Palestine’s prisoners are a badge of honor for their society, soldiers willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of a higher cause. And that is why we all wait anxiously for their release alongside their mothers, fathers, wives and children while at the same time feel a tinge of disappointment at the realization that some of these men and women will not be allowed to return home after all those years behind bars.

But it is not for us to judge. The prisoner swap will go down in Palestinian history as the deal that freed an Israeli soldier hidden for five years from the world, for the freedom –” or relative freedom –” of over 1,000 prisoners, many of whom never thought they would see the outside of their prison cells again.

So, let’s put aside the criticism at least until families are reunited with their loved ones. In any case, it is good to believe that nothing is forever. Today, Israel has dictated that some of our men and women cannot go home. Tomorrow, when Palestine is free, they will be welcomed back with open arms.

The swap is not perfect. But no political deal ever was. At the simplest, most human level, it is enough to rejoice that so many of our prisoners will be free from Israeli captivity. That in itself is enough to be thankful for.