The Israel-Hamas Prisoner Swap, from the West Bank

On November 24th, I woke up in occupied Ramallah to the news that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a temporary ceasefire. It was Friday, and the streets were empty. In a café, a few old Palestinian men were watching a news broadcast, which reported that the two warring parties had agreed to exchange human beings for four days: Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, at a ratio of one to three. The ratio reflected Hamas’s weakness: in the most recent hostage swap, in 2011, the militant group had traded the soldier Gilad Shalit for a thousand and twenty-seven imprisoned Palestinians. But in the café this depreciation was ignored. The men greeted the deal as a great victory—perhaps the only victory in two horrifying, bloody months.

By lunchtime, the Manara roundabout, in downtown Ramallah, was filling with people. They stood in twos and threes. The crowd circled four stone lions that guard the roundabout’s central island. A poster showed the faces of a few dozen of the thousands of children killed in Gaza. Palestinian policemen, in baby-blue uniforms, stood watching; they served the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah’s nominal government, and most residents consider such officers little more than quislings for the Israeli occupation. The P.A. has often suppressed rallies and protests, but today, it seemed to be allowing a demonstration.

The crowd advanced down an avenue lined with cafés and juice bars. A Christian priest marched in front, arms interlinked with the leader of Palestine’s Communist party. Men masked by kaffiyehs carried the flags of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another left-wing faction. Dozens of women marched behind the men; a few waved the green flag of Hamas.

A man shouted slogans, and each time the crowd echoed him: “Come on out, Oh, Moon! Light up our camps! We were not created to live in the shadow of oppression!” Women held signs printed with the photographs of sons and daughters taken by the Israelis. Their hope, though they didn’t spell it out, was that their children would be part of the swap.

I approached a woman speaking ardently about imprisoned Palestinians. “They want to make our homes empty,” she said. Her name was Aman Nafa, and she was fifty-nine. She said that she had been a prisoner herself multiple times: her first arrest occurred when she was seventeen, after she’d organized protests against the occupation of the West Bank.

Upon her release, she said, a prisoner named Nael Barghouti sent a message asking for her hand in marriage, and they fell in love. After he was released, during the 2011 swap, they married. But nine years ago Barghouti was arrested again—the soldiers who made the arrest accused him of being affiliated with Hamas. (Nafa denies this.) Prior to October, Barghouti’s sister Hanan and two of her sons were arrested. On October 7th, another of her sons posted a TikTok video mocking an Israeli soldier who was being dragged across the ground; he and his brother were arrested. Hanan and three of her sons were placed under “administrative detention,” in which Palestinians are held without charge or trial. The arrests, Nafa believed, represented “revenge” against a family known for its resistance activities. (The Israel Defense Forces have killed members of the Barghouti family, and have called them “terrorists.”)

The demonstrators returned to the roundabout. Nafa received a phone call. A rumor was circulating that the first prisoners would soon be released.  “We’re ready!” she exclaimed.

The exchange was supposed to occur outside Ofer Prison, a few miles to the southwest, near the town of Beitunia. I drove there on a street that ran through shabby neighborhoods. In the distance was the West Bank separation barrier, which many human-rights groups call the Apartheid Wall, and, beyond that, the outlines of Ofer Prison.

I parked and proceeded on foot toward the exchange point. Many Palestinians were headed the same way. A woman told me, “I don’t know any of the prisoners, but I’m here to support them.” An S.U.V. negotiated the thick traffic; protruding from its sunroof were three children, each dressed in a different color of the red-green-and-black Palestinian flag. People streamed down the surrounding hillsides. The word was that, at precisely four o’clock, thirty-nine Palestinians would be released from Ofer.

By 3:45 p.m., more than a thousand people had gathered. Children in kaffiyehs, balancing on tires and cars and fallen girders, peered down the road at the prison’s watchtowers. The crowd was alive with an expectant buzz, as if at any minute figures would materialize in the distance, and the horror of the past seven weeks—the nearly fifteen thousand dead, the flattened neighborhoods in Gaza—would now be worth it. “What Hamas did was a great achievement,” a man in his sixties told me. I asked him whether the release of a few dozen prisoners could justify the deaths of so many civilians, on both sides. “I’m not happy,” he countered. “No one here is happy.”

Yet, all around us, I saw smiles and heard laughter and song. Patriotic tunes sounded through car windows. It was as if the crowd wanted the prisoner release to prove to the world—or, at least, to remind themselves—that, beneath all the recent suffering, their fight for self-determination was still alive. The state of Israel sensed this ambition. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national-security minister, had ordered the police to suppress celebrations in East Jerusalem. “There are to be no expressions of joy,” he declared. “Expressions of joy are equivalent to backing terrorism. Victory celebrations give backing to those human scum, for those Nazis.”

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