Jerusalem – With tears of joy rolling down her cheeks, and a look of utter disbelief, Sawsan Bakeer ran down a flight of steps to greet her 24-year-old daughter, Marah, who had just been released after eight years in an Israeli prison.
Marah Bakeer is one of 39 Palestinian women and children released from Israeli prisons on Friday in exchange for 13 Hamas captives under a Qatar-mediated deal that includes a four-day truce in Gaza.
“I told you Marah is beautiful,” Sawsan told journalists, as she hugged her daughter and showered her with endless kisses. “Not because she’s my daughter, really, but Marah is beautiful, and you got to see for yourself.”
Before her imprisonment, Bakeer was a 16-year-old high school student at al-Maimouna School in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Every day, she would make her way from the family home in Beit Hanina to school, crossing an expressway that runs between East and West Jerusalem.
While on her way home on October 12, 2015, Israeli forces shot and arrested her for allegedly attempting to stab an Israeli officer. Bakeer and her family deny the accusations.
When she was arrested, Bakeer was lying on the pavement with 12 gunshot wounds to her arm and hand which have left her with permanent damage. She was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison.
A child when imprisoned, Bakeer was due to complete her sentence and return home in four months’ time.
‘I needed my mother’s love’
Newly freed, Bakeer told Al Jazeera that her time in prison was hard, but that she had endured it with her faith in God and the support of her family and fellow Palestinian prisoners.
“There were many difficult times in prison, but just like anyone else going through life, they passed.
“Prison was especially difficult because I was young [when I was jailed] and I needed my mother’s love and my family’s support.
“Although there were many fellow prisoners who took care of me and helped me, nothing can replace a mother’s love,” she said as Sawsan held onto her.
About 8,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, including 3,000 who have been detained over the past seven weeks amid an increasing number of armed Israeli raids across the West Bank.
Over the next four days, 150 Palestinian prisoners and 50 Israeli hostages are to be freed.
Solitary confinement before release
Over the years of her imprisonment, Bakeer has become something of a political figure, representing all female prisoners before the administration at Damon prison in northern Israel, where female Palestinian prisoners and minors are detained.
Following the Hamas attack on October 7, Israel moved Bakeer, along with other prison leaders, to another prison, in Jalame, and placed her in solitary confinement.
For more than six weeks, she was not permitted to communicate with her fellow inmates nor receive any information from the outside world.
“It was a very difficult time because they kept me away from the rest, and it was during the war. I didn’t know what was happening to them and that really affected me,” she told Al Jazeera.
“What was even harder, was that I didn’t know anything about my family. But I knew God would protect them,” she added.
Bakeer was taken out of her cell on Wednesday but says she was not told what was happening.
“When I didn’t go back to my cell, I knew there was a deal being negotiated, but I had no idea what the details were,” she explained.
She was only informed on Friday morning that she was going to be leaving prison.
No celebrations, Israel orders families
Ahead of Bakeer’s release, her family said they did not have any information about when she would be coming home until Israeli forces stormed their home and asked all relatives and guests to leave. They warned against any show of joy or celebration upon Bakeer’s arrival, the family said.
Bakeer’s father, Jawdat, was taken for questioning at a police station in Jerusalem and warned against the family showing any signs of joy about Marah’s release.
“Marah came home to us today. We’ve just received her but they [Israeli forces] threatened to storm the house and arrest me if we celebrate,” he told Al Jazeera.
Israeli forces also blocked all entry to the neighbourhood where Bakeer’s family home is located. They have stationed soldiers in front of the house, ensuring no groups can gather.
Qadura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club NGO, said 33 prisoners were freed in the West Bank and handed over to a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross, while six others were released in Jerusalem.
The NGO said in a statement that the Israeli government set several conditions forbidding the released prisoners and their families from speaking to the press, receiving guests at home or distributing sweets in celebration. Those who do not abide by the rules could be fined about 70,000 shekels ($18,740), the NGO added.
Although Bakeer is happy to be home, she told Al Jazeera that her happiness was incomplete with the continuing bloodshed in Gaza.
“I’m very happy of course, but I feel devastated by how that deal was reached … at the cost of our brothers’ and sisters’ lives in Gaza.”
More than 14,800 people have been killed in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza since October 7. In Israel, the official death toll from Hamas’s attacks stands at about 1,200.
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