Palestinians exiled to Gaza, free but far from home

GAZA CITY, Selim Saheb Ettaba- Two days ago these men were prisoners in Israeli jails, now they cast dazed looks at the sea view from their luxury hotel in Gaza, where they were exiled upon their release.
They come from all over the West Bank and some are residents of east Jerusalem, but under the terms of the deal that saw them released Tuesday in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, they will now call Gaza home.
"I feel as though I've been reborn after coming out of a bottomless pit," says Shuaib Abu Sneineh, a Hamas member from east Jerusalem, as he looks out over the Mediterranean.

Abu Sneineh, a father of four, sports a salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look older than his 44 years, 13 of which he has spent behind bars. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an Israeli.
"I don't feel like a stranger here," he says. "It's true that there's a slight sense of exile, but it's not like finding yourself in Spain or Chile."
"But every prisoner wants to return to his home and is sad to be far from it," he acknowledges.
Abu Sneineh says his family will come to visit him in Gaza, but he fears that Israel would strip them of their Jerusalem residency permits if he relocated them.
"Israel is trying to permanently empty Jerusalem of its Palestinian population and I don't want to give them a chance to get rid of a family."
Hussein Rabie, 31, grew up near the West Bank city of Ramallah and had never been to Gaza before he was exiled here under the deal.
"We don't make a distinction between the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the 1948 land," he says, referring to what is now Israel.
"When you see the welcome we received here, you have the feeling of being with family," adds Rabie, a member of Hamas's armed wing who spent 10 years in prison and now intends to resume his studies in physics.
"I've never been to Gaza, it's a dream come true," he adds. "It's the first time I've seen the sea."
Hamas is putting up around 60 of the prisoners exiled to Gaza in a hotel in the centre of Gaza City, with around 100 others staying in a five star hotel in the north of the city that only recently opened its doors.
Salem Rashid Tabanja's mother Aida has come from Nablus, in the northern West Bank, to see her newly released son. To get to Gaza she had to travel first to Jordan, then Egypt and cross into the coastal strip at the southern border.
"It's freedom, but not real freedom," she says, lamenting the distance between her house and her son's new home.
Tabanja was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in Hamas operations. Unlike some of his fellow prisoners exiled to Gaza and others sent overseas, he will be able to return to the West Bank in three years time.
Ayman Hatem al-Shakhshir is not so lucky. Condemned to 16 life sentences, his exile to Gaza is permanent, much to the distress of his mother Sawsan, who has also come from Nablus to see him.
"It's very difficult to come from the West Bank, it's easier to go to a far-away country than to Gaza," she says.
"It really is a paradise here, the welcome of the people," she says, "but a five-star hotel is nothing compared to having my son at home."
"It's nothing compared to holding him in my arms," she adds, hugging her son for the first time in nearly 10 years, her eyes misting behind her glasses.
Legal experts including Raji Surani, head of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, say the exile clause in the exchange deal is illegal.
And he warns that the precedent SET by previous instances in which Israel has exiled Palestinians to Gaza or overseas suggest there is little chance that the newly-banished detainees will be able to return home.
"These prisoners have been punished twice and their families have been punished as well," he told AFP.
"It is the right of any prisoner to be released in his village, city, or camp. This is a grave breach of international law."

Friday, October 21st 2011
Selim Saheb Ettaba

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