Middle East

Freed Palestinian prisoners adapt to Qatar exile

Ibrahim Shammasina
Image caption Ibrahim Shammasina is one of 15 prisoners who were immediately deported to Qatar

As part of the deal to free the captured Israeli soldier Sgt Gilad Shalit last year, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails.

The vast majority were allowed back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but 40 prisoners were forced to leave the region entirely, deemed by Israel to be a continuing security threat.

The releases were enormously controversial in Israel, where some of the prisoners were seen as mass murderers.

A two-bed flat not far from the cornice in Qatar's capital, Doha, is now home for 47-year-old Ibrahim Shammasina from Ramallah.

His new living room is twice as large as the cell in the Israeli jail where he spent 19 years.

"A minute of freedom is worth more than all the possessions in the world," says Shammasina. "Prison, it's a grave - as if you're in a grave but still alive."

Shammasina was sentenced to 23 years in jail for his role in the 1990 murder of three Israelis and a further 20 years for planning a kidnapping. Despite spending almost half his life in prison, he does not regret his actions.

"When there is an occupation, you're forced to," he says. "It's your duty, the duty of every Palestinian, to resist the occupation. If I didn't resist, I would just have surrendered."

'No regrets'

Out of one of the bedrooms steps Ibrahim's frail 85-year-old mother, Tamam. While he was in prison, Ibrahim's brother, father and wife all died.

His mother, who peppers every sentence by giving thanks to God, could not see her son for years.

Understandably, she has now decided to come to Qatar to be with him.

Despite the time they spent apart, she supports what he did.

"No, I don't regret it. I don't regret it," she says simply.

Also visiting Shammasina for a few weeks is one of his two sons, 24-year-old Iyad.

His father has been in prison for most of his life, but he says that he does not feel any anger towards him, although they do not have a typical relationship.

"He's more my friend than my dad," says Iyad.

'Only option'

Ibrahim Shammasina is one of 15 prisoners who were released by the Israelis but immediately deported to Qatar. Another 25 prisoners were sent to Turkey and Syria.

Israel says it still considers all 40 men a security threat.

Sitting in the corner of Ibrahim's flat is another released prisoner, Abdul Hakim Abdul Aziz Abd Hanaini.

He spent nearly 20 years in jail after having been convicted of making explosives for use by militants against Israelis.

Abd Hanaini insists that taking up arms against Israel was the only option he had.

"At that time, when we resisted the occupation with arms, we were young, young men," he says.

"I saw with my own eyes the killing of children, the killing of women, and the destruction of our olive groves, the occupation and burning of the land. This made us feel that we had to defend our families, our children, our women."

Abd Hanaini was one of the leaders of the Palestinian prisoners in jail.

Image caption Mr Abd Hanaini says his wife has been prevented from coming to Qatar

He says he smuggled letters out to those negotiating with the Israelis, telling them to ensure they looked after the old, sick and female prisoners.

Many of the prisoners hoped to be out years ago, shortly after Gilat Shalit was taken in 2006, he reveals.

Studying

All the exiles' costs in Doha are being paid by the Qatari government. Most of the prisoners are learning to drive, and hope to secure jobs and education.

Abd Hanaini hopes to continue studying and writing, having earned a degree while in prison.

He also hopes to be joined in Doha by his wife, but the Israelis have prevented her from travelling there so far.

Shammasina is also looking to study as well as resume a fledgling cooking career he had before imprisonment.

Both deny that they are a security threat to Israel.

Their fervent hope is that the Israelis will one day agree and allow them to return to the West Bank.

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