Palestinians hail a symbol of freedom: Gazan who was locked up longer than any other detainee is first to be released by Israel as a result of last month's peace deal

A NEW 'symbol of Palestine' has come home. He is Salim Zerai, a small, stooping figure, wearing brand new clothes, with the glazed look of a man who has stared at the walls of a small cell for a very long time.

After 23 years in an Israeli jail, Mr Zerai was yesterday trying to get used to his new status as the first Palestinian detainee to be set free by the Israelis as a result of the peace deal.

'I am a stranger here,' he said, looking round at the crowds with their banners and flowers, shouting, waving and crying, at his home in Deir el- Balah in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. From all over Gaza, Palestinians had travelled to pay homage to him on his first full day of freedom.

Those opposed to the peace process also seemed cheered by Mr Zerai's homecoming. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, who are demanding the release from jail of their leader, Ahmed Yassin, showed no anger yesterday that Mr Zerai had come back first. 'You are welcome back within your family,' said graffiti outside Mr Zerai's home. 'Hamas congratulates the symbol of Palestine.'

Mr Zerai is the first of more than 12,000 'captives of the Palestinian revolution', as he puts it, to be freed. He has been locked up longer than any other Palestinian, jailed by Israel since shortly after the beginning of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank began in 1967. Israel has given no guarantees about how many of the other prisoners will be released. But yesterday it said it would free up to 2,000 Palestinian prisoners within the next two weeks.

Mr Zerai is a supporter of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). He was jailed for 'gun-running' in 1969. He is one of those who once had 'blood on his hands', as the Israelis would say.

Nowadays, however, Fatah supports negotiations and its men have largely laid down their guns. Will it just be Fatah prisoners, like Mr Zerai who are released? Or will members of other militant opposition groups, such as Hamas, be set free?

The question of Palestinian prisoners is at the top of the agenda of the negotiations over Palestinian self-rule, which re- started in the Red Sea resort of Taba yesterday. Mr Zerai plans to travel to Taba to tell them what freedom for all Palestinian prisoners would mean.

'Release of the other prisoners will strengthen the support for peace,' Mr Zerai said. Eighty per cent of the prisoners in his jail support the agreement, he claimed. 'Every Palestinian mother wants her son out of jail, every son wants his father, every woman wants her husband . . . There can be no meaning for the peace deal if all the prisoners are not

set free.'

His words were confirmed by the atmosphere in Deir el- Balah yesterday. The release of this one man has been seized on by Palestinians in Gaza as a sign that their new optimism in the future is justified.

Mr Zerai's years in jail do not appear to have produced bitterness. As his family and friends hugged him, he said he was ready to 'forget' - if not 'forgive' - the Israelis. 'Israelis think of revenge. But Palestinians are forgiving people,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Sport
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One quarter-finals
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
film
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up