West Bank residents congratulate Hamas on freeing Palestinian prisoners

West Bank residents congratulate Hamas on freeing Palestinian prisoners

The two cousins ​​spotted each other on the bus leaving the prison, as shocked at seeing each other as at their sudden freedom. “Pinch me,” Anwar Atta, 18, told his younger cousin. “I need to know if this is a dream.”

Then, early Sunday morning, the bus rolled out of Ofer prison in the West Bank and into a crowd of cheering Palestinians. Before the cousins’ feet touched the ground, they were hoisted into the air and carried through the streets of Ramallah, surrounded by people waving Palestinian and Hamas flags, revving the engines of their motorcycles and whistling excitement.

“It’s thanks to the resistance in Gaza,” Anwar said a few hours later from his family’s home on the outskirts of the city.

Anwar and his cousin Mourad Atta, 17, are among 180 Palestinian teenagers and women released from Israeli prisons in recent days, the largest release of prisoners and detainees in more than a decade. Their freedom is part of a deal in which the Palestinians were exchanged for 81 hostages, many of them children, captured during the Hamas-led terrorist attack in Israel on October 7. The deal also included a temporary ceasefire in Israel’s war. Gaza, which has killed more than 13,000 people, according to Gazan officials.

Israel’s bombing of Gaza and elation over the prisoners’ release have boosted support for Hamas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has administered towns and villages for two decades. Gaza, the other Palestinian enclave, has on the other hand been controlled since 2007 by Hamas.

Today, while many people in the West Bank fear that the war will spread to the occupied territories, some believe that Hamas and other armed groups are the only ones they can trust to protect them.

The Palestinian Authority – which is controlled by the Fatah political faction – is deeply unpopular and widely seen as a contractor to the Israeli occupation. Long-standing frustrations with the authority’s leaders and accusations of corruption were exacerbated last year by a surge in violence by Israeli settlers.

For some Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, the freed prisoners have become a powerful symbol of Hamas’ ability to achieve tangible results and its willingness to fight for the Palestinian cause. Every night in Ramallah, as new groups of prisoners were released, a refrain echoed through the crowd: “The people want Hamas!” The people want Hamas!

Pollsters and analysts warn that support for the group is limited to a minority of residents and tends to increase temporarily during conflicts in Gaza. But amid fears that a wider war could break out in the West Bank, many say the growing support today has taken on a new, more existential quality.

There is a growing sense that people need protection and “have no alternative,” said Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, which specializes in research and opinion polls. “The only game in town is Hamas.”

Hours after his release, Anwar Atta and his cousin Mourad sat outside family homes in Deir Abu Masha’al, a village of about 4,000 people on the outskirts of Ramallah. A steady stream of neighbors and relatives came to welcome them into their homes, smoking cigarettes and drinking small cups of coffee.

“Where have you been, it’s been a long time,” Anwar’s aunt, Halima Atta, chided him, holding him in her arms. “Are you going to keep making trouble?”

“I’m done, okay?” I’m done,” he replied.

“No, you have a beard now, you’re a man,” Halima joked.

The reunion lasted for years. Anwar was arrested in June 2021, for what he said was throwing stones at Israeli soldiers – an act of resistance encouraged by an Israeli military offensive in Gaza a month earlier. Israeli authorities say he threw an “incendiary device.”

During the more than two years he spent awaiting trial, Anwar came to accept that most of his youth would be spent behind bars – a price he was willing to pay to defend his land, did he declare.

After the October 7 attack, which Israeli authorities say killed around 1,200 people, news of the Hamas hostage-taking spread among the cells of Ofer prison – sparking protests hope of a release of the prisoners. The detainees clapped and clapped, shouting “God is great” and praising armed resistance, Anwar recalled.

The weeks that followed were, according to him, the hardest of his incarceration. Anwar, other recently released prisoners and a human rights group say prison officials have rationed water and electricity. They confiscated televisions and radios and banned relatives from visiting them, creating an information blackout. And as prison officials intensified their searches for contraband, they forced inmates to kneel on the floor and beat them, freed prisoners and rights groups said.

Israel’s Prison Service said it had imposed stricter restrictions in prisons in recent weeks – including confiscating electronic devices, canceling family visits and carrying out hundreds of searches – in connection with the war effort. Authorities say prisoners can file complaints that will be investigated by authorities.

Hundreds of new detainees also poured into the prison – some among the more than 2,000 Palestinians arrested since October 7 – and shared news of the war in hushed tones, Anwar said. The detainees devoured every bit of new information, both stunned by the scale of the devastation in Gaza and wondering if the war could also bring them freedom.

Then last week, the moment Anwar had been praying for arrived.

Early Sunday morning, Mourad’s mother sat on the sagging couch in their living room, watching the news on television and wondering if her son would be among those freed. When she saw Mourad and Anwar’s faces appear on the screen, waving at the prisoners’ bus, she jumped out of her seat.

“We were screaming, jumping and crying – we couldn’t believe it,” said his mother, Amal Atta, 35.

Mourad was arrested after throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in August 2022, following a multi-day military offensive by Israel in Gaza earlier that month, he said. Israeli authorities accused him of throwing an explosive device. Like his cousin, he too has never been tried.

The teenagers’ return to the village has been celebrated for days; young children ran around their house devouring candy while older parents picked Anwar and Mourad up to hug them.

“Why do you think he was in prison?” It’s because of everything he’s seen here, everything he’s exposed to – it made him want to go out and fight back,” said Anwar’s uncle, Omar Atta, 45. , sitting among their loved ones on Sunday evening.

As his loved ones hugged each other nearby, Omar looked toward the hillside, a cool breeze shaking the branches of the olive trees below. Since the start of the war, Israeli soldiers have erected a new barricade blocking the only paved road leading to their village. Israeli security forces searched homes in the village and arrested a dozen of its neighbors, he said. Frustration and anger grew.

“Israel thinks it is suppressing or destroying the resistance,” Omar said. “But look what they’re doing. They only make him stronger.

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Ramallah.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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