In northern Gaza last week, thousands gathered at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, awaiting the arrival of 15 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails.
As the bus carrying the prisoners crossed to the Palestinian side, crowds waving both Hamas and Fatah flags lifted the men on their shoulders as they chanted and shot celebratory gunfire and fireworks into the sky.
This batch of prisoners was the first of four releases that will ultimately free 104 long-serving Palestinian detainees, whom Israel agreed to let go as a confidence-building measure to restart peace talks.
"These first moments of my freedom have made me forget all my years in jail. The moment I saw the huge crowds waiting for us at Erez crossing, I forgot the 24 years which I spent in Israeli cells. I felt absolutely free," said Nehad Jundiya, one of the released prisoners.
Jundiya, who is originally from Gaza, was arrested when he was 16 years old, two years after the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. On July 13, 1989, after his cousin's death in clashes with Israeli soldiers, Jundiya and his friend Mohammed Hamdiya fatally stabbed an Israeli citizen inside Israel before they sneaked back to their homes in Gaza.
He was later arrested and, following several rounds of interrogation, they both confessed to committing the murder. Jundiya was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
For Jundiya, the years he spent in Israel jails are now a "past nightmare" that he does not wish to recall. "Life in Israeli prisons is full of pain, suffering and oppression. I don't wish to remember those painful memories ... prisoners are deprived of almost everything meaningful and are subjected to all sorts of oppressive measures. But, now that I am out of prison, this is all in the past," he said.
'Our freedom is incomplete'
"I only hope the rest of the Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails will also be released. Our freedom is incomplete without theirs," he added.
The 41-year-old said he could find no words to describe his feelings when he met his family at the Erez crossing. He added that he was grateful to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his efforts to secure his release. His sister Shifa said her family "couldn't still believe that Nehad was finally, and after all these years, among them - and they could see and touch him".
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During Nehad's first months in prison, Jundiya's father, whose house was entirely demolished in a revenge attack by Israeli forces following his son's indictment, died of a heart attack. His mother died the following year. "I always thought both my parents died because the distress was too much for them to endure. I wish they had been alive today to see me one last time before they died," he said, grimly.
Another released Palestinian detainee from Gaza, 43-year-old Samir Murtaja, said "the most difficult moment for a prisoner is when they receive the news of the death of one of their parents." Murtaja, jailed on charges of being politically affiliated with Hamas, lost both his parents during the past four years.
"God bless my mother's soul; she would always say that she wanted to see me just one time before she died," Murtaja said. "My father died in 2008, so I always prayed that she would live long enough to see me when I am released. But she died at the beginning of 2012. I lived the worst moments in my entire life, especially because I saw neither of them for the past 20 years I spent in jail."
Murtaja had been married for only a few months before he was jailed. His wife, however, refused to divorce, deciding to wait for him until his release. "The hardships she had to endure and her sacrifices were much greater that mine - since while I had no choice in prison, she actually chose of her own free will to go through all the pain alongside me," he said.
While in prison, Murtaja successfully finished his university education and obtained a certificate from the Hebrew Open University. And his wife, agreeing to his request, finished her high school and university education, and even obtained a master's degree in education.
In April 2012, protesting harsh prison conditions including a ban on family visits, Murtaja took part in a mass hunger strike along with 1,600 other Palestinian detainees. The strike lasted for 28 days.
"Following the capture of [Gilad] Shalit [the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in June 2006], all family visits were banned. After his release, we expected family visits to be allowed again, but they weren't," said Murtaja. "So I and other detainees embarked on a hunger strike for 28 days during which we had no food, only drinking salt and water. They were such difficult moments."
In Israeli prisons, to achieve one's demands, one has to be ready to sacrifice their dearest things.
For Murtaja, who had only two months left in his sentence, leaving his cell was not an entirely happy experience. "I was extremely saddened, as I had to depart company with my own brother, who shared the same prison cell with me," he said.
Murtaja's brother, Fadi, was arrested in 2003 in Bethlehem, where he was living with his wife, and given a 16-year sentence. In prison, Samir saw his brother Fadi for the first time since his own conviction in 1990.
"It was such a bewildering experience, I didn't know how I felt," he said. "It's true I wanted to see my brother, but not in such circumstances ... When I first saw him in Nafha prison, I didn't recognise him. He told me that he is Fadi, my brother, and we embraced. I didn't know how I felt. I was happy to finally see and hug my brother, but I was extremely saddened and agonised to know that he was here, in prison."
Samir believes that the Palestinian prisoners' issue should be put above every other issue, and that all Palestinian groups should work hard to secure the release of "those lost lives" behind Israeli bars.
"In Israeli prisons," he said, "to achieve one's demands, one has to be ready to sacrifice their dearest things. One has to pay dearly - with even their own blood."
Source: Al Jazeera