Palestinian hopes for freedom still alive 10 years after Shalit deal

Middle East Monitor  /  October 18, 2021

To embrace freedom after being sentenced to life in prison is an unbelievable miracle. This is what happened to Palestinian ex-prisoner Ahmed Al-Falit, Anadolu Agency reports.

Having already served 20 years in Israeli prison as part of his life sentence, Al-Falit was released 10 years ago, following a prisoner swap deal between Palestinian resistance group, Hamas, and Israel.

On 18 October 2011, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in an Egypt-mediated deal, aiming to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006.

Upon his release, Al-Falit established Nafha Centre for Prisoners Studies and Israeli Affairs in the blockaded Gaza Strip, a dream he developed during his time in prison, which he was able to realize following his release.

Miracles happen

Al-Falit (49) said he was sure of an imminent miracle that will see him and his fellow inmates released from prison.

“We kept clinging to our hopes despite being in prison,” the ex-prisoner told Anadolu Agency. “The evidence to that is that we were continuing with our bachelor’s and master’s degrees in preparation for life after prison even though we were sentenced to life.”

Al-Falit earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the Hebrew University, while he was serving his sentence.

He said he started dreaming of freedom when news of the capture of Shalit on June 25, 2006, by Hamas fighters reached him.

“On that day, I woke up to the voice of my friend in prison calling me, saying: ‘The Gazans kidnapped an Israeli soldier’,” Al-Falit recalled vividly.

Alongside his fellow inmates, Al-Falit anxiously began following up on news, in the hope of a prisoner swap deal that was realized five years later.

Bittersweet moments

After a long-awaited list of to-be-released prisoners was out, Al-Falit experienced bittersweet feelings.

He was happy hundreds would see freedom, but was also sad for thousands of others who would remain behind bars as they were not included in the deal.

Through a smuggled phone, Al-Falit was informed three days before the deal was implemented of those set to be released.

He became disheartened and unable to inform those not included in the deal.

But the message eventually reached all prisoners. A moment of silence engulfed the prison until a Jordanian prisoner sentenced to life broke it.

“The Jordanian prisoner congratulated the released prisoners, and comforted those remaining in prisons,” Al-Falit said.

Hope remains

Al-Falit is hopeful that a new swap deal will be reached soon that will see “the rest of the prisoners enjoy the taste of freedom.”

A good case for other prisoners to believe in this hope is the story of Imad al-Din al-Saftawi.

Now 57-year-old, al-Saftawi was not among those included in the Shalit deal but was released in 2019 after completing his 20-year prison term.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Al-Saftawi said those still in detention “have a great conviction that the time for release is nearing.”

He said a prisoner “cannot afford to have his hope for release disappear or fade” as this will mean his “destruction”. “That is what the Israeli occupier wants,” he warned.

Recalling the moments when the Shalit deal was implemented, Al-Saftwai said he was heavy-hearted not to be on the list of those released.

“For those of us who remained jailed, we were happy for our brothers who were set to be released. While sadness grew in our hearts like a tree, we did not want to spoil their joy of freedom,” he said.

“The prisoners realize that there is no escape from prison except through a deal or the collapse of the entity (Israel).”

He noted that the prisoners are pinning their hopes on another swap deal to be struck between Hamas and Israel so that they embrace freedom.

Hamas has captured two Israeli soldiers following the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza. Two other Israelis are believed to have been held by the Palestinian group after they entered Gaza under unclear circumstances.

The group hopes to swap the Israeli captives for 4,500 Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons.

Israeli concerns

The Shalit deal was a huge success for Palestinians. A number of those released went on to secure leadership, administrative or developmental positions, inside and outside Palestine.

Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, is one notable example.

Mustafa Ibrahim, a political analyst, told Anadolu Agency that Israel is worried about any prisoner swap deal with Hamas.

“The freed prisoners’ attaining of great leadership positions has become a source of concern for Israel,” Ibrahim said.

“Israel realizes that prisons have turned into schools where the Palestinian captives play an important role in the struggle against the occupier.”

According to Ibrahim, Israel is now trying to avoid completing any new prisoner exchange deal so as not to repeat the Shalit deal mistake as well as for fear of angering its right-wing supporters.

Recently, Hamas revealed that its mediators are ready for talks with Israel on a prisoner swap but said it did not receive a positive response.