A released Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives, October 18, 2011, Ramallah, West Bank.

Credit:

Ilia Yefimovich, Getty Images

Feature Story

For Palestinian Jerusalemite Prisoners, Release Does Not Equate to Freedom

In an effort to dampen the joy surrounding the liberation of Palestinian prisoners, the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem actively thwart any celebration that Palestinian prisoners’ families might plan for the release of their loved ones.

This approach was made clear when 76 Jerusalem prisoners were released during the seven-day temporary truce (“humanitarian pause”) that included a prisoner exchange deal between the Islamic resistance movement Hamas and Israel from November 24 to 30, 2023. 

No Joy Allowed

“My instructions are clear: there are to be no expressions of joy,” declared Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir ahead of the first release of Palestinian prisoners as part of the hostage swap and humanitarian pause.

He continued: “Expressions of joy are equivalent to backing terrorism; victory celebrations give backing to those human scum, for those Nazis.”

Accordingly, Ben-Gvir directed Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to use “an iron fist” against any attempts to celebrate prisoner releases.

“My instructions are clear: there are to be no expressions of joy.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli Minister of National Security

This policy of prohibiting the expression of joy upon the release of prisoners is not new. The first Jerusalemite prisoner to experience such capricious restrictions upon his release was the elected Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) representative Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir. Released from Nafha Desert Prison in 2010, he was later kidnapped, rearrested, and eventually released near al-Moskobiyya Detention Center, west of Jerusalem.

After a long legal campaign lasting from 2006 to 2018, Abu Tir was stripped of his permanent-resident status in Jerusalem, banned from entering it, and deported to Ramallah (see Deported for Not “Showing Loyalty”: The Case of Four Jerusalem Officials Whose Residency Was Revoked after a 12-Year Legal Battle).

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Palestinian women and child prisoners are finally reunited with their families in Jerusalem.

Rapid Rearrest

Rearresting a prisoner immediately after their release is seen to be the first punishment faced by released Jerusalemite prisoners, as they are transferred directly from the prison from which they were released to al-Moskobiyya, the major investigative center in East Jerusalem.

Their relatives are occasionally asked to transport them to this facility themselves, where the prisoners would be threatened, interrogated, and forced (along with their guardians) to sign documents stipulating harsh conditions and financial penalties for noncompliance.

The Release of 14-Year-Old Ahmad al-Salaymeh, a Traumatizing Family Event

The youngest child as part of the fifth batch of prisoners released from Israeli prisons during the recent exchange, Ahmad Nawaf al-Salaymeh, 14, shared details of his release on November 28, 2023, with Jerusalem Story.

In his house in the town of Silwan, adjacent to al-Aqsa Mosque, Ahmad described how he and other children were transferred in a prisoner transport vehicle (also known as a “Bosta”) from the juvenile detention center of Damon Prison in the north of the country to al-Moskobiyya Detention Center, west of Jerusalem, where he was held from 10:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.

During this time, one of the investigators sat down with each of the minors who were set to be released and warned them not to organize any celebrations—forbidding fireworks, parties, flags, and banners, and limiting family reunions to members of the nuclear family. All of these conditions are clearly beyond the control of a child.

Ahmad was also told not to leave his home until the day after his release. Jerusalemites were taken aback by another unprecedented order, one of a long list of prohibitions, which prevents minors who were released under the terms of this exchange agreement from returning to school. This decision was allegedly issued by the Israeli Minister of Education, according to the released prisoners’ families.

Ahmad’s father, Nawaf al-Salaymeh, said that the experience of his son’s arrest was fraught with anxiety and fear. Ahmad was incarcerated about two months before the war in Gaza began; when the war started, families were kept completely in the dark regarding the fate of their loved ones.

The father of Ahmad Nawaf Al-Salaymeh, 14, released from Israeli jail press November 28, 2023
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Palestinian Jerusalemite Ahmad al-Salaymeh, 14, one day after his release from Israeli detention as part of a larger swap between Israel and Hamas

Ahmad al-Salaymeh, 14, next to his father, Nawaf, one day after his release from Israeli detention. The eighth grader was detained for throwing rocks and later accused of anti-Semitism and committing acts with nationalist motives.

Credit: 

Ibrahim Husseini, The New Arab

On the day of Ahmad’s release, Nawaf was summoned to the investigation center where his son was being detained, but he was not see allowed to see him.

“The intelligence contacted me by phone and asked me to go to al-Moskobiyya center, where I stayed from 1:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. in an open square. The prisoners’ families waited there, long difficult hours in the extreme cold,” Nawaf said.

Nawaf’s phone was confiscated, as was his ID card. Through verbal threats and intimidation, the intelligence officer warned each of the parents against celebrations, media interaction, or participation in honoring ceremonies organized by the various organizations.

Nawaf told them that he would not expel any media outlet that arrived at his house and that he and his son would only tell what the child went through during his four-month detention experience.

“The officer’s language carried threats and intimidation, and the moment of [Ahmad’s] release was one of the most difficult things I had to experience in my entire life. Expecting that I would meet Ahmad at the investigation center and take him home from there, I was surprised when three intelligence agents picked us up in their own vehicle, and one of them sat between me and my son and prevented me from greeting or even looking at him.”

“The moment of [Ahmad’s] release was one of the most difficult things I had to experience in my entire life.”

Nawaf al-Salaymeh

The journey from al-Moskobiyya to their home in Ras al-Amud was relayed by the father with deep pain. He described Ahmad’s ordeal inside the vehicle, where he sat handcuffed and shivering in cold weather. Nawaf took off his coat to offer it to his son, but he was prevented by the intelligence officer from doing so. Upon reaching their house, Ahmad was taken out of the car and his iron handcuffs were removed. In a final act of brutality, father and son were forcibly shoved inside the house (presumably to minimize the time that any curious neighbors or onlookers could catch a glimpse of the returnee).

Before Ahmad arrived home, large numbers of Israeli police stormed the family home three times to ensure it was empty of well-wishers. They remained in the vicinity until after midnight to make sure that no one reached the homes of the extended Salaymeh family, who welcomed three released prisoners on that day.

Three Palestinian Jerusalemite cousins walk together following their release in the Israel-Hamas hostage-prisoner swap, December 12, 2023.

Palestinian teenagers (left to right): Mohamed, Ahmad, and Moataz al-Salaymeh, cousins imprisoned by Israel before their release as part of an exchange deal, walk next to Ahmad’s father in their East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, December 12, 2023.

Credit: 

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Abuse of Prisoners Continues after Their Release

The details surrounding the release of Ahmad al-Salaymeh reflect a pattern of abuse of released prisoners and their families that no longer surprises Jerusalemites. These measures aim to isolate freed detainees from their community and disrupt their social support system.

Certain groups of prisoners, especially those with lengthy incarceration or influential social presence, face targeted measures that are arbitrary in nature. Release conditions often include celebration prohibitions, house arrest, deportation to the West Bank for days or weeks, and media blackout.

Israel justifies these oppressive measures by claiming that celebrating the release violates its “sovereignty” over Jerusalem and disrupts its security. This explains the extended arrest campaign of Palestinian Jerusalemites who had celebrated a prisoner’s release and raised Palestinian flags. It is clearly intended to dispel social gatherings centering prisoners and breaking the bonds of solidarity with them.

The director of the Center for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, Ahmad Rafiq Awad, told Jerusalem Story that the measures implemented during the recent exchange deal reflect Israel’s determination that Jerusalemites not express joy as long as Israeli prisoners remain held in Gaza. The aim is to downplay any perceived victory for Palestinian resistance in a city under Israeli control.

Awad reviewed the ongoing pattern of abuse, torture, and retaliation against residents of the occupied capital and described these measures as attempts to turn former prisoners into isolated outcasts in their own families and communities.

“Most dangerous of all is the threat to deny prisoners and their families civil rights like health insurance and education, and to deprive Jerusalemites of their right to residency or Israeli citizenship, which is precisely what happened to some of them,” Awad added.

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Expressions of Israeli Sovereignty Everywhere

Israeli flags overwhelm Old City walls, Jerusalem, November 23, 2023

Israeli flags overwhelm Old City walls, Jerusalem, November 23, 2023.

Credit: 

Jerusalem Story Team

The municipality has also made sure that large numbers of Israeli flags are displayed around the Old City walls and at the entrances to Palestinian neighborhoods where prisoners were released.

Awad explained that this falls within the framework of asserting that this is Israeli territory subject to Israeli law—conveyed by the flood of Israeli flags, the nation’s most recognizable symbol.

He labeled this action as provocative but ultimately futile: It does not break the will of Jerusalemites or achieve the results desired by the authorities in subduing and Israelizing the Palestinians of Jerusalem or accepting Israeli diktats.