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)

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