Khallat al-Agd, Occupied West Bank – Like the 25 other Palestinian prisoners released by Israel on New Year’s Eve, wheel-chair bound Naim Shawamreh received a hero’s welcome in his small village.
The 26 Palestinians, who had served between 19-28 years in prison, were freed ahead of a visit to the region by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who since July has attempted to revive long-stalled peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Family and friends pitched a large reception tent outside Shawamreh’s home decorated with Palestinian flags and Fatah’s yellow banners, as well as portraits of Fatah leaders including the late Yasser Arafat.
A poster prominently displayed outside the tent congratulated Shawamreh on his freedom from the “prisons of the occupation”. The poster carried the signature of Fatah, the political backbone of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Well-wishers from Hebron, 20 kilometres to the northeast of Khallat al-Agd, trickled in amid joyous ululations by the neighbourhood women, as patriotic songs glorifying the Palestinian struggle rang out.
On the one hand I am glad that he is out of jail. On the other hand, I am extremely worried about his illness and the possibility that he will recover. I pray to the Almighty to heal him.
Shawamreh was sentenced by an Israeli military court to life imprisonment in 1995 for killing an Israeli explosives expert.
For the Israelis he is a murderer. But to his people, Shawamreh is a freedom fighter and a hero.
“The Israelis – who came from overseas and stole our land, killed our children, destroyed our villages and dispersed us all over the globe – are the last people on earth who can call us terrorists,” said Hajj Muhammed, Shawamreh’s elderly uncle.
“We are their victims. They are the real terrorists.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, condemned the hero’s welcome the released prisoners received.
“Murderers are not heroes. This is not how you educate for peace, this is not how peace is made,” Netanyahu said. “There will be peace only when our security interests and settlement interests are ensured. There will be peace only when Israel will be able to defend itself on its own in the face of any threat.”
As a testimony to the overwhelming public solidarity with the prisoners, schoolchildren with their teachers arrived at the reception tent holding aloft portraits of Shawamreh.
But the joyous atmosphere at his home was markedly dampened by the released prisoner’s physical condition. Shawamreh, 45, suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Arriving at his home in an ambulance, Shawamreh struggled to communicate with well-wishers and the media. Al Jazeera was politely asked by his family to refrain from “asking too many questions” in light of his condition.
Although relieved that her son was finally free, Shawamreh’s mother said she is worried about his health.
“I really have a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand I am glad that he is out of jail. On the other hand, I am extremely worried about his illness and the possibility that he will recover. I pray to the Almighty to heal him.”
It remains to be seen how successful the US secretary of state’s trip to the region will be.
A Palestinian official close to the talks, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media, described the mood in PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s office as “as gloomy and despondent”.
“There is a certain feeling that the Israelis are treating us as a vanquished enemy rather than a peace partner,” he told Al Jazeera. “We also feel that the US has a little leverage on Israel, and that instead of pressuring the real villain, the Americans are bullying us to effectively succumb to Israeli dictates.”
The official cited Israel’s insistence that the Palestinian Authority must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the “ultimate breaker of the peace talks”.
Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, was asked whether the peace process would collapse if Kerry’s current mission failed as many observers expect.
“Israel believes in peace and is willing to take difficult decisions and make serious steps to expedite peace, but the Palestinians have to reciprocate and they are not reciprocating.”
He repeated consistent Israeli demands that in the context of a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel must be allowed to maintain a “security presence along the Jordan River”.
Jerusalem, and we will use our right as a UN observer state by taking political, diplomatic and legal action to stop it.”]
“The Palestinians must also recognise that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, just as Israel recognizes Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people,” Gendelman said.
Abbas vs Netanyahu
Earlier Abbas lashed out at Israel, accusing its government of displaying ill-will and negotiating in bad faith.
“We will not remain patient as the settlement cancer spreads, especially in [annexed East] Jerusalem, and we will use our right as a UN observer state by taking political, diplomatic and legal action to stop it,” the Palestinian leader said as he welcomed many of the newly freed prisoners at his Ramallah compound.
Stronger-worded statements were made by other Palestinian officials, including chief negotiator Saeb Eirekat who called the Israeli government “dishonest and insincere”.
The Palestinian Authority has come under increasingly strong pressure both from within its ranks and from Hamas to get tough with Israel and not deviate from its long-stated goals.
These include a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, a just solution of the refugee problem pursuant to UN resolution 194, as well as the establishment of a viable, sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Recent polls showed 63 percent of Israeli respondents and 53 percent of Palestinians said they back a two-state solution. But that support dropped to 54 percent and 46 percent, respectively, when respondents were asked about specifics such as the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.