|A Hamas official said the prisoner exchange was almost cancelled because of the issue of women prisoners [Reuters]
Palestinian prisoners deported to Qatar under the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas say they were aware they could be sent abroad as part of a negotiated swap as early as 2006.
Speaking exclusively to Al Jazeera, Abdelhakim Hnaini and fellow prisoner, Hazem Asili, who have been in jail since 1993 and 1986 respectively, explained that in 2006, just days after Gilad Shalit's capture,some of the prisoners understood that deportation may be on the cards for them. This despite the fact that over the past five years, Hamas had publicly insisted that it would not accept deportations in any prisoner exchange.
"In prison I was one of the leaders of the Hamas prisoners," Hnaini said on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after his arrival in Qatar. "Shortly after the capture of the Israeli soldier, the leadership inside Israeli prisons held a meeting to discuss parameters of a possible swap deal, which were then passed on to the leadership on the outside. One of the things we told them was that if the success of a swap hinged on some of us having to be deported, then we will liberate you from having to make that decision on our behalf."
"If the Israelis say that some of us can only go free if we are deported, we are ready to go to any Arab or Islamic country that is willing to accept."
For his part, Asili, who was not privy to the early discussion, explained that no prisoner was forced by Hamas to accept deportation.
In the moments leading up to Tuesday's exchange, the International Red Cross was responsible for consulting each of the prisoners to ensure their awareness of what the swap entailed.
"We were consulted individually by the Red Cross," said Asili. "Every single one of us that was deported was asked by the Red Cross whether or not they accepted the deportation."
"Each one of us was given the option to accept the deportation or not."
"Of course none of us were happy to be forced out of our homeland," said Hnaini. "I told the Red Cross representative that I didn't want to be deported, but the only other option was to go back to prison."
'Illogical and political complaint'
For Ezzat al-Rishq, a member of Hamas' politburo, the negative focus on deportation is an attempt by other political factions to throw cold water on the exchange.
"It's an illogical and political complaint," he told Al Jazeera. "None of the prisoners would have preferred to remain in jail for another 25 years. It was clear to us that deportation might have been an option."
He was keen to point out that the Israelis had insisted on deporting a much greater number which he put at "around 250 prisoners".
"We refused and insisted over the past two years until that number came down to 40," he said."Deportation is not something we take lightly."
Referencing the deportation of 39 Palestinians following the Church of Nativity siege during the second Intifada, which was negotiated by the Palestinian Authority, Rishq said: "Many of those criticising this deal forget that in the past, almost every prisoner swap included deportations.
"We of course did not get every single term we wanted, but we came out with 90 per cent of what we were seeking," he explained. "We couldn't get that last 10 per cent, we couldn't prevent the deportation of 40 prisoners, and we couldn't get some of the top leadership."
Those within the top leadership include Abbas al Sayyed, Abdallah Barghouti, Marwan Bargouti and Ahmad Saadat.
"Yes, we used to say deportation was a red line, and we still say that," Rishq said. "It is something we try to avoid at all costs. But at the end of the day, it was the least of two bad options."
Women in Israeli prisons
Hamas has also come under scrutiny for another aspect of the deal. When it's leader, Khaled Meshaal, announced that an agreement to exchange the captured Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners had been made, he also said it included the liberation of all female Palestinians from Israeli jails.
Yet on Tuesday it was discovered that while 27 women were released, another eight still remain incarcerated in Israel's prisons. When asked about the discrepancy, Rishq revealed that this issue had almost derailed the entire swap at the last moment.
"The written deal between us and the Israeli enemy, under the patronage of the Egyptians, included the following language: that all female prisoners held in Israeli jails would be set free," Rishq said.
"It did not specify a number, it said 'all'. This is what we signed, what the Egyptians signed, and what the Israelis signed."
However, when it came to implementing the deal "the Egyptians asked the Israelis to give us a list of all the female prisoners held in Israeli jails," Rishq said. The list was handed over to Hamas "in the very last moments of the deal" and included the names of 27 women.
"There wasn't enough time at that moment to double check all the names, but this was the list the Israelis gave us, and we announced it," he said. After checking over the list, they realised that eight women were missing.
"The Israelis claimed these women were not prisoners, they were merely detained and have not been charged.When that became clear to us, we told the Egyptians these women had to be included," Rishq said.
As a result of the discrepancy, two days prior to the set release date, Hamas forced the negotiations to be reopened to insist the eight women be added to the list.
"Even [Tuesday], when the Israeli soldier was being handed over to the Egyptians … just moments before he was handed over the deal could have fallen apart," Rishq said.
Hnaini confirmed these events, adding that on Tuesday they were ready to go when everything was put on hold.
"We got on the buses, and they started moving, when suddenly they stopped," he said, forcing the prisoner exchange to be delayed by a few hours.
It was only after the Egyptians confirmed they would follow up on this matter and continue to press the Israelis, "and that refusing to free them would be considered a breach of the deal signed," that the exchange took place.
"The deal, until the final moments before the swap, was hanging by a thread."