In West Bank, Cheers and Worries After Prisoners Are Released

It was the moment the crowd outside the gates of Ofer prison just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah had awaited for hours: A large white bus carrying Palestinian prisoners and detainees exited the prison gates and made its way through the crowd around 8 p.m. Friday.

Throngs of Palestinians erupted in cheers while drivers revved their engines in celebration. Fireworks erupted, replacing the sounds of tear-gas canisters that Israeli security forces had fired to disperse the crowd throughout the afternoon. One man climbed on top of the bus and hoisted two Hamas flags, while those around him praised the group they saw as responsible for the release of their loved ones and neighbors.

“The people want Hamas! The people want Hamas!” They cried.

For hours on Friday afternoon into the early evening, hundreds of Palestinians had waited outside Ofer for the first group of Palestinian prisoners and detainees to be released as part of an exchange laid out in a deal between Israel and Hamas for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza.

The hours of anticipation had been tinged both with grief for the devastation wrought by the war in Gaza, and with elation for a moment that many saw as a small victory for Palestinians — one that many in the crowd attributed to Hamas.

As the prisoners and detainees made their way to a nearby municipality building, hundreds of people raced alongside them, waving Palestinian and Hamas flags.

Hanan Saleh al-Bargouthi, 59, who was among those released, hugged her husband and grandchildren as tears clouded her eyes. She had spent around 80 days in prison, she said. According to the Israeli authorities, her case was being tried in military court on state security charges. But now, reunited with her family, a sense of relief and defiance washed over her.

Hanan Saleh al-Bargouthi, 59, with her family after her release on Friday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

“Resistance, keep going — despite the bloodshed, despite the destruction, despite the homes that have been destroyed — you’ve given us dignity!” she cried, a Hamas scarf wrapped around her head and neck.

Most among the crowd had come to offer their support to the relatives of those being released and experience a small, if fleeting, moment of relief tempered by the ongoing tensions.

As members of the crowd drew closer to the prison entrance earlier Friday afternoon, a group of Israeli soldiers had walked toward them — a warning to keep back. Around 20 minutes later, a second warning came as Israeli security forces launched tear-gas canisters near the crowd, their white smoke drifting up a hilltop. When night fell and the crowd outside the prison grew larger — and more impatient — more white plumes of tear gas filled the air.

Since the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7 in which more than 1,200 people were killed, according to the Israeli authorities, Palestinian residents in the West Bank say they have experienced their own extension of the war.

Tensions have simmered for years and rose to new heights in recent months in the West Bank, an area larger than Gaza where millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation. While the Palestinian Authority controls large parts of the territory, the group, seen as ineffective and corrupt, is increasingly unpopular.

Israeli security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to clear a crowd that had gathered to welcome the released prisoners on Friday outside Ramallah.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Since the war, new checkpoints have been erected and barricades built, making movement between some areas practically impossible. Violence by Israeli settlers has reached record highs, according to the United Nations. And the Israeli military has carried out nightly raids in the West Bank, in what it says are part of a counterterrorism operation.

“They have built fear in our hearts,” said Hanna Tufaheh, 50. “Everyone feels extremely depressed, and it’s extremely difficult for everyone.”

As she spoke, the sun began to sink beneath the beige apartment buildings of Ramallah. The call to prayer rang out from a nearby loudspeaker, and men lined up in the street to pray. Jihad Mtoor, 32, stood with a group of friends smoking cigarettes and waiting as cars brought more Palestinians.

For Mr. Mtoor and his friends, the release of prisoners was a small victory in a war they did not expect to end anytime soon.

“What we are here to celebrate came from Hamas in Gaza — this is not the first nor will it be the last prisoner deal with the Gaza war,” Mr. Mtoor said. As he spoke, his friends began rattling off the names of major Palestinian figures currently in Israeli prisons — hoping perhaps that they, too, could be released.

Among the names was Marwan Barghouti, 64, who is serving time in Israeli prison for killings committed during the first and second intifadas, which he led. Some observers believe he could be part of a larger prisoner exchange to help end the war.

The anger and frustration among Palestinians in the West Bank have been palpable, as the death toll in Gaza has grown, with more than 14,000 people killed, according to health officials in the enclave.

Mr. Mtoor said the war “will and already has encouraged the new generation to resist.”

“This will never end; this will continue from one generation to another until the land is liberated,” he added.

Jamal Abu-Hammad, 64, who works at a delivery company, agreed.

“Pressure leads to explosion,” he said. “They are putting pressure on the people in Gaza, and we are the continuation of the people of Gaza here in the West Bank — we will stand with them.”

Freed Palestinian prisoners and others in the crowd on Friday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Amid the crowd gathered outside of the prison, many expected only muted versions of the usual celebrations. When prisoners are typically released, family members and friends pick them up and drive with them through the Ramallah city center, honking their horns and waving flags for hours to share the news of their release.

But the war in Gaza has left an indelible mark. Many families here have relatives in the enclave, some of whom have been killed in the war. Others have been outraged by the death toll from the Israeli bombardment and invasion.

“We are unable to celebrate the way we usually do, unfortunately, because of the bloodshed taking place in Gaza,” said Najah Hassan, 50, the head of the nongovernmental organization the Palestinian Prisoners Club in Ramallah.

In Qalandiya, just outside Ramallah, Samahir Awwad, 43, had waited for news of her 24-year-old daughter, who was expected to be released from prison. She said her family would hold a modest celebration at home rather than on the street as usual.

“We have to respect the fallen martyrs, the injured, the wounded in Gaza,” she said.

Standing outside the entrance to Ofer prison, Lareen Salameh, 18, and Hida Kali, 21, had lingered alongside a large crowd.

“I am here today to celebrate with my people — the least we can do is to stand with our prisoners,” said Ms. Salameh, who lives nearby. Since the Hamas attack in Israel, both women said, their daily lives have been upended by new restrictions.

Ms. Salameh’s father, who works in Nablus, a West Bank city about 50 miles away from Ramallah, used to visit her and her siblings four days a week before the war began. The new checkpoints have now turned the one-hour drive into an hourslong trip, and he comes only once a week — if that — she said.

Israeli soldiers closed off the entrance to a neighborhood in Huwara in the West Bank last month. Since the war, new checkpoints have been erected and barricades built.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

“The situation has become very difficult in the West Bank — with the roads now, it’s almost impossible to get from one place to another,” she said.

For Ms. Kali, the war has hit even closer to home. While she was born in Ramallah, both of her parents are from Gaza. Dozens of her relatives remain there. Most fled from their homes in Shuja’iyya, a neighborhood of Gaza City, for the south when the war broke out — heeding an Israeli evacuation order and praying it would mean relative safety.

Then, on Oct. 17, Ms. Kali was watching the news with her parents when she saw the name of her pregnant cousin streak across the television screen alongside others who had been killed. Panic struck.

When they finally reached another relative in Gaza, it was worse than they could have imagined: Her cousin, as well as her three children, had all been killed by an explosion at the apartment building where they had been staying temporarily.

“The situation is a complete disaster — in any moment my relatives could be killed,” Ms. Kali said.

Karen Zraick contributed reporting from London, and Iyad Abuheweila from Cairo.

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