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On the Scene in Gaza, As Army Frees 147 Palestinian Prisoners

It was very hot at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon, when three busloads of Palestinians arrived at an Israeli military headquarters camp in Gaza.

There were 147 of them. They didn’t seem to mind the intense heat or the tough plastic ribbons that bound their hands tighter than handcuffs. A good will gesture was about to be enacted, and these Palestinians were the beneficiaries.

The military authorities made a special effort to be nice to the news media, which all too frequently they see as an adversary. Local and foreign journalists were invited to bear witness that the Israel Defense Force is ready to meet the Palestinians half way.

The IDF had announced some days earlier that on the occasion of the Moslem feast of Id el-Adha, and in appreciation of “the relative quiet in the Gaza Strip,” these Palestinians were to be released.

They were only a tiny portion of the thousands of West Bank and Gaza Arabs imprisoned since the intifada, as the Palestinians call their uprising, began in the territories more than 7 months ago.

This particular group had just completed a two-hour ride from the remote detention camp of Ketziot in the Negev — a bone dry, terribly hot and thirsty place by reputation.

Now they were being offered cold drinks. But somebody had to cut their bonds. “Scissors, scissors, we need scissors,” an officer demanded impatiently. The scissors were produced and the officer personally released the prisoners’ hands, one by one.

A GESTURE WITH A MESSAGE

Many in the group were administrative detainees. They were imprisoned at Ketziot without trial, under emergency regulations. Some had been held up to six months.

The official rationale for administrative arrest is that while the authorities are convinced that certain persons are active in organizing the intifada, they have no proof that would stand up in court.

The practice is a holdover from the British Mandate’s emergency regulations, which were employed over 40 years ago against Jews.

The release of the 147 prisoners Sunday was intended to send a message to the Palestinians that there are alternatives to the IDF’s get-tough policies, if the local population cooperates.

The about-to-be-freed detainees were marched into the main hall of the military headquarters for a final word. Their faces were impassive. But they seemed to be saying, “We will do anything you want, just let us out of here.”

A senior officer of the civil administration entered the hall. The prisoners rose in respect. They were determined to please the system, lest the military have second thoughts about releasing them.

The civil administration official, who is an IDF officer, delivered a short speech. He explained to the prisoners that their release was an act of good will, but that any future breach of law and order would send them again behind bars.

The prisoners did not need much convincing. They only wanted out. In interviews with reporters after their release, none could understand why he was detained in the first place.

Nasser el-Hour, 21, of Gaza admitted that some of the detainees must have taken part in the intifada — but not him.

Asad el-Hassaneh, 25, from the Shati refugee camp in Gaza said he was jailed for four months, because he violated a curfew order. He said he was given a court trial, but was not allowed to appeal his sentence.

CHEERING IN DOWNTOWN GAZA

The prisoners were each given temporary identity cards as they boarded buses to freedom.

The convoy hardly left the camp heading for downtown Gaza when the buses were surrounded by hundreds of cheering Palestinians. Horns honked and there were shouts and handshakes.

There was much hugging and kissing as prisoners were reunited with family and friends in Gaza’s main square.

An Arab mother, embracing and kissing one son, heard voices shouting at her to “look, there is the other one.” She turned and saw her second son, also just released from detention.

But there were warnings from some welcomers for the prisoners to leave the area quickly, lest they be re-arrested for unlawful gathering.

Was the Israeli gesture appreciated? “Of course,” said a former student at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I would not wish a period of detention at the Ketziot prison to my worst enemy,” he said.

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