Cousins taste freedom after 23 years
Published Wednesday 14/08/2013 (updated) 21/08/2013 14:30
Hosni Sawalha prays at his parent's grave in the the West Bank
village of Azmut, on August 14, 2013.(AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
AZMUT, West Bank (AFP) -- Tears streamed down Hosni Sawalha's face as he recited from the Koran alongside the graves of his parents, who died while he was in Israeli jail since his teens.
The 40-year-old and his cousin Mohammed Sawalha were released alongside 24 other long-serving Palestinian inmates early on Wednesday, hours before a new round of peace talks with Israel.
"I still can't believe I'm free," Hosni said on arriving at 3.30 a.m. back to his hometown of Azmut, near Nablus in the West Bank.
He and Mohammed received a heroes' welcome from villagers, friends and family, who gathered to cheer the return of their native sons, who had served 23 years of a life sentence.
The two men, alongside accomplice Jaafar Duweikat, were arrested during the first Palestinian intifada in 1990, accused of stabbing and killing one Israeli and wounding three others aboard a bus near Tel Aviv.
Duweikat was shot dead by the bus driver.
"Mohammed and Hosni are heroes, seen by their contemporaries as imprisoned in Israel for the sake of the (Palestinian) nation," said Ghassan Mohammed, a 37-year-old taxi driver.
Mohammed and Hosni were reluctant to talk about their actions, both saying they now simply wished for peace.
"I hope the resumption of talks will achieve something and won't just be a waste of time. I hope we can gain our rights and all our prisoners are freed," said Mohammed, also 40.
The men said they wanted to resume their normal lives, move on and perhaps get married.
"Our release was a big surprise, because we thought we'd be among the last batch of prisoners," Hosni said.
Israel has agreed to release a total of 104 prisoners, most of who were jailed before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, in stages depending on progress in the new talks.
Mohammed's mother Umm Yusif, in her 70s and the last remaining of the two cousins' parents, smiled from ear to ear, ululated and sang as they arrived back in Azmut.
"This moment is the happiest of my life," she beamed, saying that she could not wait to feed her son.
Hosni and Mohammed barely recognized many of those who flocked to greet them, especially the younger villagers born after the two men were incarcerated aged 17.
Hosni finished reading the Fatiha, the opening passage of the Quran that is recited for the dead, and stepped back from his parents' graves.
He and Mohammed said they would soon set off for nearby Araq al-Taye to visit Duweikat's family.