Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem chanted in celebration of Hamas on Friday as 39 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails as part of a prisoner swap deal. The deal, mediated by Egypt, involved the exchange of 17 Israeli civilians and soldiers captured by Hamas during a surprise attack on Israel last month for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The released prisoners, who were mostly affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad, were greeted by jubilant crowds waving Palestinian flags and banners of the resistance factions. Some of the prisoners had been serving long sentences for involvement in attacks against Israelis, while others were held under administrative detention without charge or trial. Among them were Abdul Karim Younis, who was the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israeli jails, having spent 38 years behind bars for killing an Israeli soldier in 1983, and Mohammed Arman, who was sentenced to 36 life terms for his role in a suicide bombing that killed 15 people in 2002.
However, the festive atmosphere was marred by clashes with Israeli forces, who fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 120 Palestinians were injured and one was killed by Israeli gunfire in various locations across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli army said it was responding to “violent riots” and “attempts to harm Israeli civilians and soldiers”. The clashes erupted after the Israeli police banned the entry of Palestinians under the age of 45 to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. The police also arrested several Palestinians who tried to enter the compound or displayed Hamas flags or symbols.
Major Victory for Hamas
The prisoner swap deal was seen as a major victory for Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza Strip since 2007 and has been engaged in several wars with Israel. The group said it had enough Israeli captives to free all Palestinian prisoners, and demanded the release of more than 4,000 Palestinians still in Israeli custody, including women, children, and political leaders. The deal also boosted the popularity of Hamas among the Palestinian public, who have been suffering from the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
The deal also put pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the West Bank and has been engaged in peace talks with Israel for decades. The PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has been accused by many Palestinians of being weak and corrupt, and of failing to protect the rights and interests of the Palestinian people. The PA has also been criticized for its security coordination with Israel, which some see as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. The PA has been trying to reconcile with Hamas and form a unity government that would represent all Palestinians, but the efforts have been hampered by mutual distrust and disagreements over the terms of the deal.
The prisoner swap deal came amid a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which was brokered by Egypt on Sunday after a month of intense fighting that killed more than 12,000 Palestinians and 1400 Israelis. The UN and other international actors have called for a lasting truce and a resumption of dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The UN has also urged both parties to respect the human rights and international law obligations, and to refrain from any actions that could escalate the situation.