Palestinians rejoice as 39 walk free from Israeli prisons

Published November 25, 2023
Occupied West Bank: Palestinian prisoners (wearing grey jumpers) who were released from the Israeli Ofer military facility in exchange for prisoners freed in Gaza, wave flags and chant slogans as they are paraded in the Baytunia area, late on Friday night.—AFP
Occupied West Bank: Palestinian prisoners (wearing grey jumpers) who were released from the Israeli Ofer military facility in exchange for prisoners freed in Gaza, wave flags and chant slogans as they are paraded in the Baytunia area, late on Friday night.—AFP

• 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and one Filipino among those released by Hamas on first day of truce
• Israeli army withdraws from Al Shifa; WHO still worried for patients, health workers

GAZA: After weeks of death and despair, there were celebrations in parts of Gaza as 39 Palestinians, who were freed from Israeli prisons on Friday, returned to their loved ones on the first day of a hard-fought truce that has brought a pause to Israeli hostilities for the time being.

Under the terms of the four-day truce, 50 women and children are to be released over four days, in return for 150 Palestinian women and children among thousands of detainees in Israeli jails. Israel says the truce could be extended if more prisoners are released at a rate of 10 per day.

But in at least three cases, before the prisoners were released, Israeli police raided their families’ homes in Jerusalem, witnesses said.

“There is no real joy, even this little joy we feel as we wait,” said Sawsan Bkeer, the mother of 24-year-old Palestinian prisoner Marah Bkeer, jailed for eight years in 2015.

In Beitunia, a city near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, a large crowd, mostly of young men, greeted freed prisoners by cheering, honking car horns and marching in the street carrying Palestinian flags.

“I can’t express how I feel. Thank God,” said 17-year-old Laith Othman, who was detained earlier this year on suspicion of throwing an incendiary device and released on Friday. “The situation inside (prison) is very difficult,” he said as he was carried along the street on someone’s shoulders.

More than 100 more Palestinian prisoners are due to be released over the coming four days and more may be freed if the truce is extended.

Earlier, 24 prisoners were released by Hamas in Gaza, nine hours after guns fell silent for the first time in seven weeks.

The two dozen prisoners included 13 Israelis, 10 Thai citizens and one Filipino, as well as four children accompanied by four family members, and five other elderly women.

They were transferred out of Gaza and handed over to Egyptian authorities at the Rafah border crossing, accompanied by eight staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a four-car convoy.

The Israeli military said the freed prisoners had already been brought to Israel, where they underwent an initial medical assessment.

A source briefed on the negotiations said the release of the Thai workers, who were all men, was unrelated to the truce negotiations and followed a separate track of talks with Hamas mediated by Egypt and Qatar.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said in a social media post that 12 Thai workers had been freed, two more than the figure given by the Qataris, but no reason was given for the discrepancy

US President Joe Biden said Friday’s release of a first group of Hamas prisoners was just a “start” and that there were “real” chances to extend a temporary truce in Gaza.

Speaking to reporters in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he was spending the Thanksgiving holiday with his family, Biden also said it was time to “renew” work on creating a two-state solution for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

For the first time in seven weeks, no big bombings, artillery strikes or rocket attacks were reported, although Hamas and Israel both accused each other of sporadic shootings and other violations.

However, Tel Aviv says it will use the four-day lull to prepare the next phase of their operation in the Gaza Strip. “During the days of the truce, the IDF will complete its preparation and readiness for the next stages of the war,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a briefing.

Withdrawal from Al-Shifa

Meanwhile, Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza’s largest hospital Al-Shifa on Friday, the health ministry said.

The Israeli military raided Al-Shifa last week, many of the estimated 2,300 patients, staff and displaced civilians sheltering in the Al-Shifa complex have been evacuated to the south of the Gaza Strip.

But the World Health Organisation said it was still “extremely concerned” about the safety of the estimated 100 patients and health workers remaining at Al-Shifa, spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

Health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said the Israeli military had withdrawn but the people remaining at Al-Shifa were in a battered complex whose “main generator is destroyed along with numerous buildings”.

“We’re working on further evacuations from hospitals as soon as possible,” said Lindmeier, with recent Israeli operations focusing on the Indonesian Hospital.

Lindmeier said the latest evacuation convoy had left Al-Shifa with “73 severely ill or injured patients” including some in need of critical care.

“We hope that this humanitarian pause leads to a longer term humanitarian ceasefire for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel and beyond,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2023

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