RAMALLAH: In Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank, long the turf of president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, the green flag of Islamist rival Hamas is flying ever higher thanks to prisoner-captive exchanges. For three nights, Palestinians have celebrated the return of dozens of detainees freed from Zionist jails, in exchange for women and children seized during Oct 7 attacks by Hamas fighters.
That has seen the popularity of Hamas soar in the West Bank, run by Abbas’ Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). Ahmed Abdelaziz, 63, joined the celebrations on Sunday. “I’m here in solidarity, and because I appreciate what Hamas has done. Seeing these young people get out of prison thanks to the resistance, I’m overjoyed,” he said. “The joy of the prisoners’ families, the mobilization of the people, all that is pushing me towards supporting Hamas.”
In Ramallah, freed prisoners carried on the shoulders of their supporters and draped in the Hamas flag said they prayed for “God to give strength to the resistance” — referring to Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza. “They say Hamas are terrorists, but we are all Hamas,” shouted the crowd. In Al Bireh, a Ramallah suburb where the elected Hamas mayor was detained by the Zionist entity at the start of the war, a few yellow Fatah flags can be seen.
But for marcher Tareq Al-Omla, Hamas — listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the Zionist entity and the European Union — has more legitimacy than Fatah. The group was acting on “behalf of the Palestinian people who are attacked every day by (Zionist) soldiers and settlers”, he said. Asked about the violence against civilians at Zionist kibbutzim and a rave during the Hamas attacks, demonstrator Jihad Ayuch told AFP: “The story started before that, and the real question is what (the Zionist entity) has been doing to the Palestinians before October 7.”
Observers expect the crowds marching in the West Bank to swell in coming weeks. Hamas still holds around 200 captives, among them soldiers who are excluded from the exchange agreement, and will want to use them to secure the release of all or some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners still detained in the Zionist entity, many of them far more prominent than the youngsters and women freed so far.
The agreement in force since Friday effectively only concerns women prisoners and those under 19 years of age, almost all of whom are unknown to the wider public. In 2011, more than 1,000 Palestinians were exchanged for Zionist soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been taken prisoner by Hamas five years earlier. Among those released was Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, who is suspected of masterminding the Oct 7 attack and is now being lauded in the West Bank.
“The prisoners are what have always united all Palestinians,” said Qaddura Fares, head of the PA’s commission for prisoners. The PA has itself been largely silent on the subject of the releases and, like the image of its president Abbas, conspicuously absent from the recent celebrations. It is a political choice, according to one of its officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Authority doesn’t want to be associated with what Hamas is doing.”
Political commentator Jihad Harb said the West Bank crowds “want to stand up to the (Zionist) authorities, who don’t want any celebrations or shows of support for the Palestinian resistance”. If even more releases follow after the current agreement, he predicted, “the popularity of Hamas will double”. No election has been held in either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank since 2006, and support for rival parties can only be measured in the street.
The last vote was won by Hamas in both parts of the Palestinian territories and was followed by factional fighting that saw them split — Hamas in power in Gaza, and secular Fatah running the West Bank. Years of political stagnation have followed, while Zionist settlements and army raids have expanded in the West Bank. The Zionist entity has normalized ties with some Arab states whose governments are deprioritizing the Palestinian issue.
Hamas has put it back on the international agenda, though at a high human cost. “We Palestinians were all waiting for this day,” said Um Muhammad, mother of freed Palestinian prisoner Noorhan Awad. “We thank the resistance who made an effort so they get released thanks to the blood of the martyrs.” – AFP