Gaza was indeed a festival today. We had planned to go down close to the border to watch the anticipated throngs of people greeting the buses filled with their sons and daughters, their brothers and their sisters. Alas, the road was closed. As we were about to head out to Qatiba Square, where the Festival of Victory and Freedom was to be held, a Palestinian friend watching Egyptian television said that we should wait, that Gilad Shalit’s interview was about to come on.
“I want to see what his experience was like and what he thinks of Palestinians,” he said. Admittedly, I wanted to see Shalit’s interview as well. Like most westerners, I knew his name, and his face. But I was surprised that a Palestinian in Gaza was so interested. I doubt many Israelis were curious to hear about the opinions and experiences of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prison being released that day.
After the interview we joined tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City’s Qatiba Square eager to catch a glimpse of the former prisoners as they exited their buses. Qatiba Sqaure, a large sandy plaza, took on a festive atmosphere as women, men and children waved Palestinian flags, as well as the green, yellow, red, black and orange flags of the various political parties. On the street, vendors sold juice, tea, coffee, bread and of course, Palestinian flags.
“This is the best day of my life because today, good defeated evil,” said 45-year-old Saleem Abu Sa’ada who was sitting next to a man with a large green Hamas flag. “For us, we want all the prisoners to be free,” he added.
Close to the stage, a 55-year-old women from Khan Yunis held a large framed photograph of a young man. “I am so happy,” she said, introducing herself as the mother of Maher El Aga’ad. “These [the prisoners] are all my sons, and I hope all that are released.” El Aga’ad was captured by Israel in 2005 when he was 17 and is still serving an 8 year sentence.
Throughout the day music played in Qatiba Square. On stage, people danced and sang, including a famous Palestinian-Israeli singer whose name I didn’t catch. I have to admit, it was really hard to figure out if someone was related to a prisoner, as literally everyone declared that the the prisoners were all their “sons” or “children.” It was if Hamas had passed out a set of talking points that even the 80-year-old grandmothers had reviewed. When the released prisoners finally arrived, people swarmed the buses, and then stood on their plastic chairs so that they could better see the stage.
“All of the prisoners are our children and all of us are so happy for our children who have been released,” said 60-year-old Saleem Ibrahim Faris, a retired teacher. “I hope unity returns to the people, that we unite our state and that we work together to achieve the state of Palestine,” he added.