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Freedom for Palestine's sons comes at a price

The 1,027 prisoners due to be freed in an Israeli swap deal face an uncertain future

Qasem al-Razem is in a mood for celebration.

The chairs are already laid out for the many guests who will come through his door in the next few days in Ras al-Amud, a suburb of East Jerusalem, all of them bearing messages of congratulation.

All that is missing is the guest of honour. Qasem's son, Fouad al-Razem, will be released from an Israeli jail in a matter of days after 31 years behind bars, but he will be deported straight to Gaza, more inaccessible for most Palestinians these days than a foreign country.

"I feel the whole world is too small for me, such is my happiness," beams Qasem, 85, a large portrait of his son at his feet. "But my happiness is incomplete, because he will be released in Gaza."

The al-Razem family found out a day ago that Fouad, 54, was in the first tranche of a total of 1,027 prisoners to be swapped for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal captured by Palestinian militants five years ago and spirited into Gaza. Hamas, the Islamist rulers of the besieged enclave, published the names of the first 470 prisoners on Thursday.

Among those to be freed are Palestinians serving multiple life sentences for some of the most notorious attacks on Israeli soil, a fact that has spurred some Israelis to question angrily the price paid by the Jewish State for the freedom of a single soldier. Some 5,000 Palestinians will remain in Israeli jails, according to Hamas.

Aged 23 at the time of his arrest, Fouad was a member of Islamic Jihad, a militant group waging armed resistance against Israel. He pleaded guilty to killing two Israeli soldiers in separate incidents in the late 1970s. His family, though, is reluctant to condemn his actions, his father insisting that he did not know his son, an imam in the local mosque, was moving in radicalised circles. But they all concur that Israel only understands the language of force.

"We've been in negotiations [with Israel] for a very long time. And what are the results?" asks Fouad's older sister Nabila Al-Razem, 57. "The expansion of settlements [in the West Bank], the separation wall, and land confiscations... We'll continue this [capturing Israeli soldiers] to liberate our prisoners."

The chances of their brother returning to normality, they fear, are slim. "If he was released here, he might lead a normal life," his older brother, Samir, says. "But if he is released to Gaza, the likelihood of him returning to Islamic Jihad is high."

Less than 20 miles away in the Al-A'mari refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah, the mood is sombre. In cramped quarters at the head of a narrow alley, the brothers of Suleiman Abu Tur, jailed already for 21 years, are also waiting for the return of their sibling, whom they have each only seen once or twice in the intervening years.

Mingled with joy at his inclusion on the list, though, is a sense of sadness because neither Suleiman's mother nor father lived to see him freed. "It was my mother's wish to see him before her death," says Samih Abu Tur, 34, his younger brother. "For 10 years [until her death], she was not allowed to see him. It was her only wish."

Suleiman's misfortune was to hail from one of the poorest refugee camps in the West Bank. During the first intifada, much less violent than the second intifada more than a decade later, its residents were subject to almost constant curfew, camp closures and raids on their homes in response to stone-throwing. It was during one such raid that Suleiman was dragged out of his house by Israeli soldiers and beaten up so badly that he could only crawl back home.

It was after that, Samih says, that he stabbed and wounded three soldiers, earning him three life terms in an Israeli jail, reduced on appeal to 24 years. So difficult was it to contact him in prison, his brothers claim, that it was only through a newspaper that Suleiman learnt of his mother's death four years ago.

"He will be a stranger," says Samih, shrugging helplessly when asked where his brother will sleep in the already crowded four-bedroom house. "Most of our neighbours have left, and his parents won't be here. I don't know how he will adapt."