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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power