Prisoner Exchange

Because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is so politicized, it is often difficult to see how agreements, decisions, and events impact the daily lives of Palestinians.  October 18th, 2011 was a day that will forever be remembered by over one thousand Palestinian families and one Israeli family; the day when the first phase of the Hamas-Israel Prisoner Exchange wherein 477 Palestinian prisoners (to be followed two months later by the second phase and the release of 550 more prisoners) were released by Israel in exchange for an Israeli Occupation soldier who was removed from a tank and taken prisoner.  The day was more celebrated than any national or religious holiday.  Even one year later, my cousins in Gaza, who have seen much more grief in their lives than joy, describe to me with exquisite detail the day of the exchange.  It was an especially memorable day for my family because one of our beloveds was released after 21 years of illegal imprisonment, my paternal uncle.  My uncle living in the United States and aunts in Jordan and Saudi Arabia traveled to Gaza for the first time in several years to welcome him home, it was my family’s largest family gathering in 30 years.

Though Sergeant Major Gilad Shalid crossed the Egyptian border at around dawn, it took much longer for the Palestinian prisoners transported by chartered busses to cross the border.  I remember watching satellite news all night hoping for a glimpse of my uncle who I saw last when I was a toddler.  I wondered if I would recognize him.  I was familiar with his face; I had grown accustomed to seeing his photo in my uncles’ homes spread throughout central Gaza.  I was even comfortable calling out his name; I have two cousins named after him, both born during his imprisonment.   Even with these reminders, we never really spoke about him unless we were making reference to some abstract joyous moments we looked forward to: the day we would no longer be refugees and could return to our hometown, the day we could fly the Palestinian flag over Beir el Saba, the day the whole family would gather in one place at the same time, the day we would no longer need our UNRWA ration cards, and of course, the day our uncle would be amongst us.  He was a permanent fixture in our daily prayers; we asked for guidance, justice, God’s mercy on our grandparents, and our uncle’s freedom. But he was not mentioned in conversation.  The mere thought of him depressed us all, brought his mother to tears, and led us down a path none of us liked to take: making empty promises to his ailing 80-something year-old mother that he would soon be released.  There were other empty promises of course, promises we tried to convince ourselves of too: others have it so much worse, he has a strong spirit and is handling this well, he is healthy, he has so much more time to bring himself closer to God and memorize Quran, he hasn’t been in solitary confinement in years, and on an on.

Truthfully, we were all extremely doubtful that he would ever be released.  In retrospect, my aunts and uncles will now say they never lost faith that their brother would be released and that even history was on their side.  Then they cite the 1985 prisoner exchange.  But I know better; everyone felt as though he was forever gone.  No one had visited him in six years, after Israel banned visits to Gazan prisoners by their families as a punishment for the 2006 democratic election of Hamas in Gaza, and he grew even further from our reach.  His mother hoped that she would survive to see him free and we would all look at her tiny, frail body covered in half a dozen blankets and make silent pleas to God that she would be granted this wish.

I have learned not to trust Israel. I knew that “disengagement” did not mean freedom back in 2005 and that the “easing of the blockade” did not mean jobs and construction in 2010.  When news of the prisoner exchange broke, I refused to believe it.  I could not afford to be disappointed in this deeply personal way. Only two weeks passed between the first news of the exchange and the date of the exchange. Lists were published with the names of the prisoners to be released.  Things were growing more concrete and more believable, but I was still weary.

My cousins tell me it was happier than any Eid they’ve ever experience and more festive than any wedding they’ve ever attended.  They said people flooded Katiba Square in Gaza City in order to take part in the Hamas-hosted celebration, those who could not make it to Katiba lined the Salahideen Highway that connected Rafah and Gaza City to cheer as the busses drove past, and my family, we gathered at our matriarch’s house where the women sang and danced with the most sincere and consuming joy I have ever witnessed through a cell phone camera.  My family passed out sweets to the neighbors and everyone with even the slightest relationship with any member of our family came to welcome the hero.  Graffiti covered the walls enclosing the house, bouquets of silk flowers were arriving hourly and filled every room of the house, and enormous pictures of my uncle welcomed the guests who arrived.

If you go to my uncle’s house today, you will still find the silk flowers and the mammoth pictures, but you will also find his wife of eleven months and his two-month-old son.  Though he sacrificed 21 years of his life to the resistance, to all of us, to our dignity, to our freedom, this past year has more than made up for lost time.  Although my uncle missed the death of his stepmother and his eldest brother while he was in prison, strangely, even after these losses, our family has never felt more complete.  When we all gather, my cousins and I each fight for the spot next to him; we surround him and he giggles with glee as he showers each of us with the 21 years of his attention that Israel has deprived us of.  There is nothing we enjoy more than hearing prison stories about how they smuggled in foods they craved that reminded them of home and their mothers and how they cooked these meals in secret and with more creativity than you can imagine, how they developed codes to describe everything in their lives, how they sent messages home, and every other detail that serves to prove the incredible power humans have to survive and to recreate home and family.

There were many Israelis and political commentators who condemned this exchange claiming Israel was freeing dangerous criminals and terrorists who will attack again and claim Israeli lives.  All I can say is that they did not have an uncle released in the exchange.  This political decision, stride toward peace, act of cooperation, or whatever you choose to call it gave me an uncle I never knew, introduced me to a laugh that always makes my heart swell with happiness, provided me with bear hugs that make me forget my troubles, and permitted me to see the sad eyes of a man who never fails to remind me of how blessed I am to finally have him in my life.  Whether you have an imprisoned uncle, a blockaded cousin, an unemployed friend, or not, know that each of these Israeli policies impacts the lives of those struggling to have one and that these political decisions mean a world of difference to people on the ground.

Mariam I.

Maryam I. is a third generation Palestinian refugee, born and raised in the United States. Follow her on twitter here

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