Freed men voice joy, but also defiance


MIDDLE EAST: Palestinian women wept for joy as they greeted husbands and sons freed by Israel yesterday.

Prisoners smiled broadly, flashed V-for-victory signs and kissed the ground near Betunia in the West Bank as they stepped off Israeli buses which brought them from jail and on to Palestinian buses heading to reunite them with their loved ones.

"I am free. I am in the West Bank on my way home," said Murad Khalil (25) after his release near the West Bank city of Nablus. He spent more than eight months in administrative detention, without charge or trial.

Like many Palestinians, he was unhappy that Israel had not freed more prisoners and that many of those who were freed had been due for release soon anyway.

"I am happy and I am free, but my happiness will not count unless Israel releases the women and other prisoners," he said.

Most of the prisoners were brought out of prison in buses, but Israeli soldiers used taxis to send them the few hundred yards over the Erez crossing into Gaza.

A large crowd of relatives shoved back Palestinian police at their side of the crossing, chanting "No peace while prisoners are in jail." They carried the prisoners on their shoulders, many of the men looking pale and thin.

Some of the freed prisoners were repentant. "I will go back to university to study. I did enough as a militant. I did my duty and now I have to look after myself and study law," said Amar Jaradat (27), a member of the Islamic Jihad group, at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin.

He served 4½ years in jail for what Israel's prisoners roster said were "services" in an unauthorised organisation.

Others were defiant, even though they were obliged to sign an undertaking not to take part in any anti-Israel activities.

"I am a soldier of the Islamic Jihad and I will do whatever and be whatever the Islamic Jihad wishes," said Hamad al-Smairi, released in Gaza after serving 13 years of a 15-year sentence.

Hussein Abu Eid (33), an Islamic Jihad member in Gaza, stopped at a cemetery to see the graves of his son, whom he saw only once, and mother, who died while he was in jail.

Moussa Shaath, an elderly man in Gaza, could not fight back tears as he hugged his son. "Thank God they allow me to see my son before I die," he said.