EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip – A freed Palestinian prisoner was given a hero's welcome in the Gaza Strip on Sunday evening after ending his hunger strike in an Israeli jail and agreeing to a plea bargain that will confine him to the Hamas-run territory for the next 10 years.
After his release from Israeli custody, Ayman Sharawneh arrived at the Erez Crossing in an ambulance with its siren blaring and red lights flashing as dozens of TV cameramen and photographers precariously gathered around the vehicle as it crossed into Gaza. Dozens of Palestinians waved national flags and chanted slogans calling for freedom.
Sharawneh, 53, appeared weak, shaky and shrunken, and was taken to a hospital in Gaza City.
Sharawneh, a resident of the West Bank, had been refusing food since last July to protest his incarceration. His lawyer, Jawad Bulous, said Sharawneh accepted the offer of confinement to Gaza, fearing he would be sent to prison for decades in a military court hearing set for Monday.
"The occupation committed two crimes," Sharawneh said, referring to Israel. "Arresting me, and then keeping me away from my family. But in Gaza, I am also with my family," he said, his voice croaking as he spoke from his hospital bed.
Sharawneh, who was serving a 38-year prison sentence for participating in militant attacks, was among about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners freed in 2011 in exchange for an Israeli soldier held for five years by Hamas militants in Gaza.
In one attack, he detonated an explosives-filled handbag in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, wounding more than a dozen people. He was also involved in a kidnapping attempt, according to Israel's Shin Bet security service.
He was arrested again in January 2012 after being accused of violating the terms of his release by making contact with members of the militant Islamic group Hamas. The military court could have ordered him to serve out the remainder of his original sentence.
Sharawneh began his hunger strike in July but halted it for a month, believing at the time he would be released.
His confinement to Gaza means he will be cut off from his family. It is difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank to obtain permission from Israeli military authorities to cross Israel to enter Gaza. The West Bank flanks Israel's east, while Hamas-ruled Gaza borders Israel in the southwest.
Even so, Sharawneh's mother said she was pleased. "It doesn't matter if he goes to Gaza. To be freed is the most important thing," said Zahra Sharawneh. "I hope the people of Gaza greet him and give him the care that he needs."
The Shin Bet said in a statement Sunday that Sharawneh could leave Gaza after the 10-year period "if he hasn't returned to terror activity."
Sharawneh was among four Palestinian prisoners who have been on a long-term hunger strike.
Another, Samer Issawi, has been on a hunger strike for over seven months. He began refusing food in August, when he was detained. He has taken nutrients in a hospital drip from time to time to stay alive, although his health condition is considered grave.
Issawi was sentenced to 26 years in prison for his involvement in a series of shooting attacks targeting Israeli police cars and students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Issawi was also freed as part of the 2011 prisoner exchange and was re-arrested for violating his release conditions.
The two other hunger strikers, Tarek Qaadan and Jafar Ezzeldeen, are in administrative detention, a system where prisoners can be held indefinitely without being charged, in three-month renewable periods. They began refusing food when they were detained over four months ago.
Israeli security officials suspect the two men are members of the violent Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and were overseeing militant activity, but neither has been charged.
About 4,000 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons for crimes ranging from throwing rocks at soldiers to deadly militant attacks. Palestinians see them as fighting for their national liberation, while Israelis widely regard them as terrorists.
West Bank protests demanding their release have repeatedly turned violent in recent weeks.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Gaza City contributed to this report.