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.
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.”