Brukin, Occupied West Bank - Mustafa al-Haj was 21 years old when he was arrested and sentenced to life in an Israeli prison.
Today he is 45, and his family is counting the minutes until he returns to his home in Brukin, a sleepy village southwest of the West Bank city of Salfit. Haj is one of 26 prisoners expected to be released early Wednesday ahead of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a process put in motion by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Seventy-eight more detainees are to be set free in three more phases throughout the year, depending on how the negotiations pan out.
To get to the family home of Haj, one must pass through seemingly endless rows of ancient olive trees, the village of Nabi Saleh, the scene of weekly nonviolent demonstrations, and its neighbour Beit Rima, where posters of detainees held in Israeli prisons adorn the house walls. In Brukin, the Haj family children can be found stringing up little Palestinian flags and yellow banners for Fatah, the ruling party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Two large posters of Mustafa Al Haj with the date he was arrested - 19/6/1989 - hang loosely, covering an entire wall. Loudspeakers blare patriotic songs and Arabic coffee and chocolates are duly distributed to visitors, as word goes around that the village municipality will open its doors to well-wishers for three days. Despite this, his brother, Farah, says preparations were made in haste. "We waited until the very last minute. The names were released [on the Israeli Prison Service] website at 1 am [Monday morning]. I cannot describe to you how happy we are," he said.
'We began to have hope'
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Haj was arrested for the killing of Frederick Rosenfeld, a US Marine turned settler living in Ariel, near Brukin. Two other Palestinian men from the village were indicted on the same charge, one of whom was released during the 2011 prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas for more than five years. Soon after Haj was arrested, Israeli bulldozers flattened his family home and the houses of the two other men.
Haj's father passed away while he was in prison, and today his four brothers and only sister are holding their breath until his release. "After Shalit was released and many prisoners were set free in exchange, we began to have some hope that Mustafa would come home one day," Farah said. Their sister Enaya is the only sibling allowed to visit Haj in prison twice a month; the brothers, one of whom lives in the United Arab Emirates, are given permits to see him once a year.
Over the past two decades, Haj was moved around more than four prisons inside Israel. Since that time, his sister Enaya said, all his siblings were married and had children, one of whom was named after him, and all of whom he has never met. "We have always had hope that he would be released in our lifetime," she said. The family now plans to help Haj start a family and get a job after his release.
Three other tranches of prisoner releases are expected in the next months. But this phased process has stirred controversy among Palestinians because Israeli authorities said it is tied to the negotiations' progress. Farah said that the Palestinians were not given a say in who gets to go free, and seniority - those who have spent more time in prison - was not made a priority. "Our happiness is palpable but it is not complete," he said. "Many thousands more are still in prison. Our neighbour’s son also wasn't set free."
There is fear among families, such as the al-Hajs, and prisoners' support groups, that some of those released will be re-arrested by Israeli authorities. As of now, 12 Palestinian detainees released during the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 have gone back to prison. They all face serving out the rest of their original sentences, based on secret evidence held by Israeli authorities.
Palestinian prisoners' support group Addameer explained that "these prisoners are not granted amnesty for their previous convictions by the State of Israel, but instead, their sentence is considered 'parole' and they are subject to re-arrest and having the remainder of their previous sentence re-imposed." That's why, "for these pre-Oslo prisoners, most of whom have life sentences, the stakes are high if they are re-arrested".
Meanwhile, Israel announced on Sunday its approval of some 1,200 settlement units in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Overnight Monday, another 900 units were authorised in the settlement of Gilo, also in East Jerusalem. The announcement put a further damper on the celebrations expected for the released prisoners. "Until this day, settlement expansion has not stopped," Farah said. "Not even for the negotiations [due on Wednesday]. What do we expect? Nothing, of course. It's business as usual. But at least for this week, we will celebrate."
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