A bitter-sweet release

Posted on 18 October 2011

I cried this morning. I am a mother. I am a human being.

Today, after more than five years held by Hamas, Gilad Shalit was released. I have no doubt of the joy his family must feel. To see the son they thought they’d lost. To hold him close, to finally feel him alive again in their arms. And I am glad that their anguish is over: we are all human, after all.

But the pain is still there, as acute as ever. The pain I feel when I think of all the mothers who’ve watched their sons, husbands and brothers, taken by force, imprisoned, tortured. The pain I feel when a child only knows of their father through the stories told by their family, and perhaps, if they’re lucky, a photograph. The pain so real when I think of the children held in Israeli prisons, and the treatment they receive at the hands of their captors.

477 Palestinians have been freed today from Israeli prisons, but they have not been freed from the bondage of the occupation, they have not been freed from the consequences of being born a Palestinian. The joy that these families must be feeling to be reunited with loved ones cannot be imagined. In the West, liberty is an everyday state of being for most people. In Palestine, liberty does not exist. Every single Palestinian, whether in Ofer or Nablus, Megiddo or Bethlehem, Givon or Gaza, is deprived of their liberty in one way or another.

40 have been exiled to lands they do not call home. Lands where they have no family, no friends, no connection, no life. 146 have been “relocated” to Gaza. They are with brothers with whom they share an identity and the struggle for freedom, but they are not with their own families, in their own homes. Others are being “relocated” abroad then moved back to Gaza after three years. (None of the prisoners released were consulted during the process and had no say in the conditions of their release.)

164 children–that is young people aged between 12 and 17–are still held by Israel and have not been included in the swap. I can only try to imagine the pain that their mothers must be struggling with as they watch others released. And there are still around 5,000 Palestinians who remain behind bars.

Some of the prisoners released today have “blood on their hands” and bereaved relatives in Israel have protested to the high court demanding they not be released. Right-wing activists have also broken into the home of the justice minister in protest. The majority of Palestinians being released under this deal have committed no crime and have not been involved in armed resistance. Who speaks up for the countless Palestinians who’ve been murdered by settlers and soldiers when no Israeli pays the price for their crimes through a court of law?

The media, of course, is full of stories of the swap, and in all I’ve read Gilad Shalit and his family are humanised, identified, emotionalised. Palestinians, on the other hand, are demonised, brutalised, animalised. One interviewee said this morning that it is like “releasing 1,000 Lockerbie bombers”. The inference is clear: all the Palestinians released today are terrorists and are guilty of heinous crimes against us.

We are led down a path where our humanity is left behind, and we are encouraged to fear and to hate. The lines between good and evil are simply drawn by a feckless hand, and so many blindly accept all that we are told without question or understanding.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has somewhat naively said that he expects this prisoner exchange to boost prospects for the wider peace process. (He does raise the question over the legality of exiling some prisoners, though.) But the release of Gilad Shalit and the release of the Palestinian prisoners will not change anything in Palestine and Israel. The swap is a simple exchange of “bodies” and does not address any of the fundamental issues: the continued displacement and harassment of Palestinians; settlement expansion; agricultural lands expropriated and razed; settlers running amok; and refugees remaining in exile.

Peace is an easy word to say, but a hard word to embrace in practice. There’s been little evidence from Israel over the past few years that a negotiated peace as an objective is either desirable or possible. Netanyahu was under great public pressure to get Gilad Shalit released. In this, at least, he has achieved his objective.

And for some, well they are less human than the others.

Full list of Palestinian prisoners released today.

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