Ahead of prisoner swap, disappointment in West Bank

October 14, 2011

During the fleeting moments Amoune Abed Rabou thought her son would be among the hundreds of Palestinian inmates Israel has agreed to release next week in exchange for an abducted soldier, she wept with joy.

The jubilation was short-lived for the 73-year-old, one of many Palestinians in the West Bank who say the militant group Hamas, which negotiated the prisoner swap, favored its own at the expense of its rival, Fatah. The overwhelming majority of the 450 prisoners Israel has agreed to free next week are Hamas members, a Palestinian official familiar with the details of the swap said Friday. Abed Rabou’s son Issa, a Fatah prisoner, is not on the release list, she learned Wednesday.

“I was planning to slaughter a lamb and have a big celebration, but instead I’m crying,” Abed Rabou said Friday afternoon, speaking from bed in her small home in this hilly refu­gee camp. “This is not an honorable list. It’s only for Hamas, which makes me angry.”

The deal announced Tuesday appeared to be an attempt by Hamas to earn favor among Palestinians at a time when Fatah leaders were winning plaudits for pushing a statehood bid at the United Nations. But whatever gains Hamas may have achieved could be offset by discontent among those who wonder why their loved ones will not be liberated. Even after the swap, more than 4,000 Palestinians will remain in Israeli jails, according to figures from the Israel Prison Service.

Hamas leaders have hailed the swap of Israeli Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian detainees now in Israeli custody as a historic achievement that will free prisoners from all the Palestinian factions. Fatah played no role in the negotiations for Shalit, who was held by Hamas in Gaza for five years after being abducted in a cross-border raid.

Israeli officials said they would release on Sunday the list of the 450 detainees who are to be freed next week, the first of two phases. A spokesman for the Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs, part of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, said Friday that the initial group approved for release includes no more than 50 Fatah members. Almost all the others are Hamas detainees, said spokesman Hassan Abed Rabou, who is not related to the mother of the inmate. Even before the publication of the lists, some families have already been informed that their relatives will not be released.

“In general, people see this as a blessing,” the spokesman said. “But there’s a great sense of disappointment when examining the details.”

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malik on Thursday expressed concern that Hamas negotiators agreed as part of the deal to have many of the detainees who are originally from the West Bank sent to Gaza or to Turkey.

Hamas agreed to limit the number of detainees who will be allowed to return to the West Bank and East Jerusalem under pressure from Israeli officials, who argued that the return of hundreds of fighters to the West Bank would pose a threat to its citizens.

Among those struggling to reconcile mixed feelings over the swap are relatives of Chris Bandak, an Orthodox Christian Palestinian who was detained after the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in spring 2002.

“At first we thought he would come here to Bethlehem,” said his aunt, Nada Bandak, who was his primary caretaker. “Then they told us they want to send him out.”

Abed Rabou, the detainees ministry official, told them Friday that Chris Bandak would be sent to Gaza.

Because Palestinians in the West Bank cannot easily travel to Gaza, Nada Bandak said she did not know whether her nephew would get any sort of homecoming.

“It’s better than nothing,” the aunt said, sounding resigned. “But we don’t know what will happen there.”

A few miles from the Bandaks’ home in Bethlehem, Ahmad Sarahne, 76, and his wife Zeinab, 60, were planning a modest homecoming celebration for their daughter-in-law.

Irena Sarahne, a Ukrainian married to one of the Sarahnes’ sons, Ibrahim, is among the 27 female detainees Israel agreed to release as part of the deal. She will be reunited with a 10-year-old daughter who was 9 months old when Irena Sarahne, her husband and two of his brothers were detained in 2002 for transporting a suicide bomber to Tel Aviv.

Irena Sarahne is expected to return to the West Bank, although her husband and his brothers will remain imprisoned. Her father-in-law said he does not get involved in politics but blames leaders across the Palestinian political spectrum for not doing more to bring his sons home.

“Anyone who will be released now from the family makes me happy,” Ahmad Sarahne said Friday. “But people are upset. I’m angry at Hamas and I’m angry with Fatah.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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