'I have denounced violence but I am going to continue the resistance by words'

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The Independent Online

"Yes, I have denounced violence, but I am going to continue the resistance by words," said Ahmed Ghenemat, a bearded Hamas activist who was among the 334 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel yesterday. "I am going to respect the pledge I signed, even if I do not believe in it."

Mr Ghenemat, in black shirt and khaki trousers, was meeting well-wishers between two green Hamas banners in the courtyard of his family home in the village of Surif, near Hebron. The house overlooks a road that is blocked by concrete slabs and a military tower.

His sister Rasmiya cried bitterly as she hugged him, but their 62-year-old father Ismail said: "Tomorrow, there will be a big party. We are going to slaughter sheep. I am very happy. Every father of a prisoner is happy."

Mr Ghenemat, still only 23, served all but three months of a 66-month sentence for helping his brother Abdel Rahman Ghenemat, leader of the Hamas cell in Surif, and for failing to inform the Israeli army of Abdel's activities. Abdel remains in prison, serving five life terms for ordering the killing of 12 Israelis in a restaurant in Tel Aviv in 1997. But he had phoned to congratulate his brother and tell the family they should celebrate.

Hundreds of the prisoners' relatives had waited in a yard near Tarqumya Crossing on the green line since early yesterday. When the Israeli buses arrived, many young men started beating drums and chanting "Allahu Akbar". Fatah supporters chanted Yasser Arafat's famous slogan, "We are heading to Jerusalem, as martyrs in millions".

Taking dirt roads to avoid army checkpoints, Ahmed and another prisoner from Surif were carried home in a procession of cars flying green Islamic flags. There he saw the family's new home for the first time: the old one was destroyed in 1997. "You look older than 23," said an uncle, looking at his long beard and wrinkled brow.

"The hardest time was the first three months of interrogation," Ahmed said. He told how his interrogators kept him tied to a chair for more than 20 hours a day, with a dirty sack on his head. "My teeth were chattering from the cold," he said.

He and his brother were kept in separate prisons, and his family had not been allowed to see him since the start of the intifada in September 2000. He said the Israelis had confiscated prisoners' table lamps, electric fans and mobile phones, adding that Palestinians in several Israeli prisons were planning a seven-day hunger strike in two weeks.

In prison, Ahmed memorised all the verses of the Koran and learned calligraphy, but he went on: "I have lost the good years of my life. My schoolmates have already graduated from college. Some of them are married." What were his feelings? "They are happiness mixed with grief," he said. "I am happy for my freedom, but I am sad because many prisoners, including my brother, are still in jail."

Abdel Rahman was held in a Palestinian jail in Hebron but, as he was being transferred to Jericho by a Palestinian Preventive Security van, he was snatched by the Israeli army. The Ghenemat family and Hamas accuse the Palestinian police of surrendering the militants.

Ahmed Ghenemat wants to study art, but his immediate wish is to visit the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest shrines. "I was there 20 days before my arrest," he said.

"I will try my best to go there, even if it means I have to sneak into Jerusalem," he concluded.