Freed Palestinian prisoners shocked at damage in Gaza
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Unlike many Palestinians who are desperate to flee Gaza, Rami and Osama had no choice but to return after years in Israeli jails, although the scope of the devastation has shocked them.
At the Erez border crossing, a vast military-style hangar, the two young men with cropped dark hair look rather lost as nearby Israeli tanks fire into Gaza.
Freed by their Israeli jailers, they are on their way home, but Gaza now is nothing like it was when they left.
After nearly a month of bombardment by the Israeli army, the narrow Palestinian enclave is barely recognizable.
“Was that a Hamas place? No, it was a school and that was a mosque,” Osama sighs huskily as he looks at a cluster of gutted buildings alongside the road taking them from Erez to their new life.
As they reach Gaza City, past accumulating piles of rubbish, children greet the coach.
The two men get out near Shifa hospital where ambulance sirens are blaring. Osama heads for Deir Al-Balah, in central Gaza, while Rami is going to Rafah on the border with Egypt.
“It was my dream to return to Gaza but it is a real shock. Everything has been destroyed. Even in my neighborhood of Deir Al-Balah, houses have been destroyed,” Osama tells AFP by telephone the following day, with bomb blasts clearly audible.
This 30 year-old with strong features was arrested in February 2008 for entering Israel without a permit and was convicted as an “illegal fighter,” he says.
His completed his sentence on Thursday and was sent straight back to war-torn Gaza.
From the start of Israel’s military operation on July 8, Gaza has seemed like a giant prison on fire, with 1.8 million men, women and children trapped by the violence without any chance of leaving because of a double Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
The only bright note for Osama is that he will see his wife and four children, including little Sara, who was born at the start of his jail term and whom he has never seen.
Boastful as he crosses the border, Rami gradually quietens down then wipes away tears before the stop-off in Gaza City.
He hasn’t told anyone of his arrival in Rafah after two and a half years in prison.
“I’ve been released and it should be a happy day but it isn’t. I see Gaza in ruins, Gaza at war. What I see is martyrs, people who are suffering,” he said.
“Better to die than live like that, without dignity,” Rami states.
In January 2012, then aged 19, he was arrested with two friends near the border with Israel.
“They accused us of belonging to the resistance, said we were there to reconnoitre, that we were terrorists,” Rami says.
Figures compiled by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem indicate that by the end of May, more than 5,000 Palestinians were being held in Israeli jails, including 370 from the Gaza Strip.
That number does not include hundreds more who were arrested in a massive Israeli sweep of the West Bank following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers on June 12.
Many of those are being held in administrative detention, a procedure under which people can be held without charge indefinitely for renewable periods of six months.
The Israeli army has also arrested hundreds of Palestinians inside Gaza since the operation began, a military spokeswoman told AFP on Saturday.
After two-and-a-half years in administrative detention, Rami was finally released from Ramon prison.
“They told me I was free. I was surprised. I told myself: ‘There is a war on. Why are they freeing me?“