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
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy