Palestinian prisoners released in a swap for an Israeli soldier last month are racing to make up for lost time: Many of the 477 former inmates are already getting married, building homes or enrolling in college, even as Israel keeps a close eye on them in fear they could return to violence.
Most had spent long years behind bars, and even expected to die in prison for their roles in bloody attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis.
Now, they are struggling with a new political reality: The Gaza Strip is run by the Islamic militant Hamas, which was an underground movement when most of them went to prison. And there is a more moderate climate than they may remember in the West Bank, where, weary after a bloody uprising against Israel, many now frown on violence as harmful to Palestinian interests.
Nonetheless, the prisoners rarely express remorse and are widely considered heroes by their communities. As part of their welcome home, they have received startup grants of up to $10,000 from the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza, and there is talk of stipends and apartments.
The prisoners, convicted for involvement in some of the most notorious attacks in recent memory, will never be able to put their pasts behind them entirely. The 132 detainees released to the West Bank and east Jerusalem have found themselves under close surveillance by Israel's Shin Bet security service. Many have been summoned for questioning and warned not to return to violence.
Those in Israel who opposed the swap of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas for more than five years, had warned that freed prisoners posed a great risk of carrying out new attacks.
Israeli counterterrorism expert Yoni Fighel said a successful transition to civilian life would reduce the likelihood of a relapse. "If they have work, a salary, an incentive to start a family and get established, the attractiveness of terrorism will be reduced," he said.
The zeal with which some of the prisoners are trying to catch up suggests they do not want to risk their newfound freedom.
Muayad Abdel Samed, 50, who spent half his life behind bars for killing an Israeli border police officer, said he believes in peaceful means for obtaining Palestinian independence.
"After these long years in prison, and at my age, and the political changes that occurred on our Palestinian case, our duties are less than before," Abdel Samed said as he mixed cement for a house he is building with an $8,000 government grant.
Abdel Samed hopes to find a bride. He also applied for a monthly stipend from the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government that was set up six years after he went to prison in 1987. In Abdel Samed's day, an Israeli military government still controlled all aspects of Palestinian lives directly, from issuing birth certificates to running hospitals.
As part of the swap for Schalit, Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinians. Of those, 477 were freed in mid-October, along with Schalit, while the remainder are set to walk out of prison in mid-December. A majority of prisoners already released had served life sentences for killing Israelis in shooting attacks or bombings.
The dean of the released Gaza prisoners, 49-year-old Yehiye al-Sinwar, went to jail in 1988. The co-founder of the Hamas military wing was sentenced to four life terms, including for his role as a mastermind in the abduction and killing of two soldiers.
After his release, his family urged him to find a bride. "At first I told them I will not think about this stage until I get organized and catch up on what I missed," al-Sinwar said.
But by the time al-Sinwar returned to Gaza from a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, his sisters had found him a 31-year-old bride with a master's degree in religion from the Islamic University from Gaza City.
Al-Sinwar was flooded with congratulatory phone calls, even as he struggled to learn how to use the Internet and to navigate streets that had changed beyond recognition. He wouldn't discuss his political plans, including a possible role in the leadership of Hamas, which has refused to renounce violence.
In all, 297 released prisoners were sent to Gaza, including 164 residents of the West Bank, east Jerusalem or Israel deemed too dangerous by Israel to return to their homes. Forty-one prisoners were sent into exile abroad. The final few returned to homes in Israel, according to the Israeli Prison Service.
The longest-serving Palestinian prisoners, cousins Nael and Fakhri Barghouti, received $10,000 each from the Palestinian Authority. They each spent 33 years in prison for membership in an armed cell that kidnapped and killed an Israeli soldier.
Fakhri Barghouti, 57, at one point shared a cell with his son Shadi, who was arrested in 2002 and is serving 27 years for involvement in an armed group. Fakhri said the Shin Bet tried to recruit him as an informer after his release, even offering to release his son.
He said he turned down the offer, and indicated he has no regrets over his violent past. "I feel proud of my people, of my family, of my sons, and of myself," Barghouti said. "My time in jail was for Palestine."
Addameer, an advocacy group for Palestinian prisoners, said most released West Bank inmates were threatened or had their houses searched by Israeli forces.
The Israeli military said it is "taking every measure to ensure that they prisoners that were released do not return to terror."
The Shin Bet said it summoned the prisoners to explain the conditions of their release. "They were also warned against returning to terror activities," the agency said.
Obeida Bilal, a 33-year-old West Bank native, is now hoping to make a life in Gaza.
Bilal was a journalism student when he was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to 25 years for membership in a violent Hamas cell. Bilal said he had eye problems before he went to jail but went completely blind during his incarceration. Bilal is now living in a Gaza hotel. His wife Nelly is barred by Israel from traveling from the West Bank to Gaza.
Despite the separation from his family, he said Gaza is better than prison.
"Maybe I am blind but I could smell freedom when I walked by the sea," Bilal said.
Cheslow reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza contributed reporting.