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In Gaza, former prisoners pampered in luxury hotel

By Ernesto Londoño,

GAZA CITY — A week ago, Yahya Dabassa Ibrahim was on a hunger strike, rotting away in an Israeli prison where he expected to spend the rest of his life.

But the Oct. 18 prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas landed the Bethlehem native in a surreal place: the Gaza Strip’s brand-new luxury hotel.

The eight-story Al-Mashtal Hotel, which opened in late July, is an oasis of fluffy white duvets, stunning ocean views, steaks cooked to perfection and sparkling swimming pools. Its splendor is startling in this blockaded territory where dozens of bombed buildings lie in ruin, heaps of garbage dot nearly every street and the Mediterranean shoreline is speckled by evidence of the tons of raw sewage dumped into the ocean every day.

As he sat in the hotel’s dimly lighted courtyard on a recent evening, Ibrahim, a convicted bombmaker, struggled to describe how dramatically his luck had changed.

“It has been a very overwhelming feeling for us,” he said as fellow ex-prisoners and their friends chatted animatedly at a nearby table. “Being in this hotel, I constantly have to ask myself: Am I seriously out of prison or not?”

The prisoner swap has been a coup for Hamas, which billed the agreement it reached with the Israeli government as a historic achievement and a testament to the results that its brand of militancy delivers. Hamas leaders have vowed to look after the released prisoners with the zeal and concern of a nation welcoming home prisoners of war.

The watershed deal secured the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, now 25, who was kept in a bunkered room for more than five years somewhere in the Gaza Strip. In exchange, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners are to be released by Israel.

As part of the agreement, Israel insisted that those it deemed particularly dangerous be sent to Gaza or abroad, rather than to their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Roughly 130 of the 260 released prisoners who arrived in Gaza last week fell into that category.

Former prisoners said that about 60 of the 130 were staying at the Al-Mashtal, with Hamas footing the bill until it can find permanent housing for the Gaza transplants.

Ibrahim, 50, served roughly 10 years of a life sentence. He was among the prisoners who went on a hunger strike in recent months after Israel took away certain perks, including access to television, and limited visits by relatives.

He was accused of manufacturing explosives that were used in attacks in Israeli cities, according to news reports. Ibrahim said he didn’t want to discuss the incidents that led to his incarceration, but he made it clear that he didn’t regret participating in militancy.

“We sacrificed part of our lives not to stay in hotels like these, but to liberate Palestine,” he said.

‘What their values are’

Israeli officials have expressed dismay at the lavish homecoming the prisoners got in Gaza.

“The fact that Hamas calls these people heroes and puts these people up on a pedestal and tells the young that these are the people who are to be emulated I think says much about Hamas, where they are as a movement, what their values are and what their agenda is,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said Monday. “Many of them were doing life sentences for killing innocent civilians.”

Israel imposed a blockade on this Palestinian enclave, home to more than 1.6 million people, after Hamas assumed power in 2007. The blockade was widely seen by Palestinians as punishment, driven in large part by the outrage that Shalit’s abduction in 2006 generated in Israel.

Israel seeks to tightly regulate the import into Gaza of construction materials that it says could be used to build military bunkers and rockets, thousands of which have been fired into Israel from Gaza in recent years. But Regev said Israel allows building materials for civilian entities that can justify the need. Construction materials are also routinely smuggled from Egypt through a vast network of tunnels that has become the besieged strip’s lifeline.

Construction for what eventually became the Al-Mashtal Hotel began more than a decade ago, amid high hopes for a settlement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It continued despite the blockade, and the Spanish ArcMed Hotels chain opened the Al-Mashtal this summer, hoping to attract business visitors and wealthy Gazan families who want to take a vacation without battling the severe travel restrictions imposed on them.

The prisoners’ arrival gave the hotel a welcome boost. Although it has become a popular hangout for Hamas members and wealthy Gazans, business has been slow. The standard room rate is $140 for single occupancy, and the supreme suite costs more than $800 a night.

‘I’m sleeping on the floor’

Ibrahim’s unexpected stay at the Al-Mashtal has taken some getting used to, he said. Because prison food was monotonous, bland and served in small portions, doctors have advised the former inmates not to gorge on the buffet. Menu items such as the fondue bourguignonne will have to wait.

“Our bodies are not used to so much food,” he said as waiters at the hotel’s flagship Barcelona restaurant dashed back and forth between the kitchen and the outdoor oceanfront seating area. “We are eating small portions until our stomachs get used to it.”

Mustafa Maslamani, 47, another former prisoner who is staying at the hotel, said he feels so out of place that he hasn’t managed to sleep on the sprawling bed with white cotton sheets in his room.

“In prison, you share a cell with eight people,” he said while chain-smoking on the hotel’s patio on a recent night as waves crashed nearby. “Here, I have not slept on a bed. I’m sleeping on the floor. I don’t want to forget where I came from.”

Maslamani, who had been imprisoned since he fatally shot two Jewish settlers in 2001, said his punishment won’t fully end until he is allowed to return to Tubas, his native town in the West Bank, where his three sons and three daughters await. Until then, he said, he’s going to enjoy the view and cuisine.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, as he sipped on a freshly served Turkish coffee.

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