Tara Todras-Whitehill
The Statesman (Analysis)
October 23, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestinian prisoners sent to the Gaza Strip in a swap for a captive Israeli soldier last week are contemplating the rest of their lives after years behind bars.

Some say they want to put their violent pasts behind them and move on, now that the celebrations marking their release have faded.

In the swap, Israel released hundreds of prisoners in exchange for tank crewman Sgt. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants for more than five years. To meet Israeli security concerns, 130 prisoners originally from the West Bank were transferred to the fenced-in Gaza Strip, making it much harder for them to carry out attacks on Israel. Most of the prisoners were serving lengthy terms for involvement in deadly attacks against Israelis.

The exiled prisoners were greeted warmly in Gaza. They are staying in two upscale hotels, courtesy of the Hamas government, until permanent housing is arranged.

While no one expressed remorse for their attacks, many indicated their days of violent activities are behind them.

"Life in prison was very difficult. Now I want to build a house and have a family like I should have a long time ago," said Rajeah El-Karaki, 34, who was serving a life sentence for his role in a school bus shooting that killed an Israeli teacher and student. He said he hopes to continue his studies in Middle Eastern history, which he began in prison.

Eyad Abu Hisaran, 40, was jailed in 1991 for killing an Israeli settler and attempting to kill two soldiers. After 20 years behind bars, he said he has mixed feelings about his new life.

"In general I like freedom. I want to work and get married. But I don't just want to work, I want to live," he said. "I like to be free and I hope everyone would be — all religions should be free," he said.

Palestinians in Gaza are not quite free, however. The territory is subject to sanctions by Israel and Egypt, which were imposed after Schalit's capture and tightened after Hamas seized control of the territory and ratcheted up rocket fire into Israel. Most of Gaza's 1.6 million residents cannot leave.

Zidan Mohammed Zidan, 29, was jailed in 2002 for attempting to blow up a bag of explosives in Israel. He dreams of one day making it back to his family in the West Bank.

"I would like to go back home. Israelis are in my country and I have to fight, but not right now," he said.


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