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Live Life Deliberately

For released Palestinian prisoners, a complicated homecoming

BALATA CAMP, West Bank — The newly released prisoners, lit by street lamps and the moon, were received as returning heroes. Teenage boys were draped in the green flag of Hamas and carried high on strong shoulders through the cheering crowd.

To Aseel Al-Titi, sitting atop a car, the red, black, white and green Palestinian flag across her back, her first hour of freedom felt electric.

But when the 23-year-old finally arrived home Friday, a year and almost three months after she left it, she struggled to sleep. Her euphoria was wearing off; suddenly the night felt very quiet. In homes across the Balata refugee camp, televisions broadcast images of the bloodshed in Gaza that had cleared the way for her release.

It was a grim formula, people here said. Three Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli custody in exchange for each Israeli hostage set free by Hamas militants in Gaza.

“Suddenly the feelings I had were so complex that they were just impossible to describe,” Al-Titi said Saturday as a steady stream of visitors welcomed her back.

“There was just one thing I knew when I was in the prison,” she told one. “The resistance would not abandon its girls.”

News of the prisoners’ release Friday rippled out through Palestinian communities, a small shot of relief, in some cases even happiness, amid what people here say is the most devastating war since the state of Israel was founded in 1948. More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli communities on Oct. 7 drew Israel’s ferocious response.

Hamas and other fighters killed around 1,200 people in Israel that day and took about 240 hostage. Israel’s goal now is to eradicate the militants from the Gaza Strip.

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces have killed more than 200 Palestinians and arrested at least 3,000 more, accelerating a cycle of violence that already has birthed a new generation of militants, and deepened sympathy here for Hamas, too.

The fighter jets, artillery and bombs fell silent on Friday, the first day of a four-day pause during which the sides have agreed to exchange captives.

Al-Titi, pale-faced and short on sleep, was wrapped in a thick winter coat as she received visitors in her family’s home down a narrow alleyway in this cramped refugee camp. The walls of the living room were covered with photographs of men in the family who had been arrested or killed by Israeli forces during previous rounds of conflict. On the wall behind her now hung the Hamas flag as well.

“She was always a strong person, but you see it even more now,” said Al-Titi’s sister, Nisreen. “You can see it in her, it’s like suddenly the resistance is inside her.”

The Balata camp, with its power lines sagging between concrete buildings and walls papered with posters of slain fighters, is a living monument to the community’s troubled history. Built to shelter around 5,000 Palestinians driven from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it now houses closer to 30,000, most of them young and impoverished, constrained by the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority that rules them and the discriminatory and increasingly brutal Israeli occupation that sets the terms.

Al-Titi was arrested while visiting her brother Sabea in prison. She was blamed in an altercation with a guard who the family said had asked her to undergo a humiliating physical search. Israeli media have reported that she attempted to stab the guard with a pair of scissors. Her family said she pushed the guard.

She had known the captive exchange was coming, she said. When prison guards confiscated telephones and televisions after Oct. 7, mostly cutting the detainees off from the outside world, a hidden radio became a secret lifeline. The prisoners knew of the Hamas attacks, she said. They knew of the bloodletting in Gaza.

When news arrived of Israeli raids to locate young militants inside the camp, she was terrified. “My brain would be going crazy, thinking, who was hurt? Was it my friends? My family?”

She knew something was wrong the day her cellmates, most of them arrested for petty crimes, tried to turn down the radio when she approached. Her uncle, a member of one of Nablus’s armed groups, had been killed. Hearing that sentence from inside a prison cell “almost broke me,” she said.

Back in Balata, the total lack of contact with Al-Titi after Oct. 7 had a similar effect on her mother, Khittam. On Friday, she arrived hours early at the Beitunia municipality to await news of her daughter. She was so excited and anxious she could barely stand still. On Saturday morning, she said her heart was finally at peace. “She’s home,” she said. “She’s my daughter and she’s home, that’s all that could possibly matter to me.”

But in the camp’s back streets, people described the prisoner release as only a brief clearing of the clouds before the storm they expect will inevitably return. “It’s hard to feel joy or excitement,” said Emad, a barber, who spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld out of concern for security. “In this camp, they arrest some, they release some, and then they arrest even more. It’s a circle.”

Close by, an Israeli airstrike this month killed five Palestinian fighters and wounded two, and the shock of that rare strike was still echoing through the camp. The building they had been gathered in was smashed to ruins. Friends and relatives were still in mourning.

Among the dead was 16-year-old Mohammed Emsamy, a boy who had revered the older fighters, said his aunt, Rania, and had been embarrassed when his female relatives told him off for spending time with them. His brother Ahmed, 15, was on the list shared by Israel’s Justice Ministry of 300 Palestinian women and teenagers slated for potential release in the captive swap. He was arrested weeks ago for throwing stones at the Israeli army, Rania said.

On Saturday, she was counting down the minutes until the list for that night’s releases was announced. But she feared what she would have to tell Ahmed when she saw him. “He doesn’t know yet. He doesn’t know that his brother was a martyr,” she said. “His uncle is preparing himself. He is going to find a way to tell him.”

The boys, their cousins said, did everything together. Went swimming, bought matching clothes, visited the park. Rania didn’t know how Ahmed might react to his brother’s death, but she was worried.

“How will we tell him?”


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