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Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi celebrates his release from an Israeli jail on Dec. 23. / Ahmad Gharabli, AFP/Getty Images

jerusalem

Since his release from an Israeli prison last week, Samer Issawi's home in East Jerusalem has seen a constant stream of visitors hailing him as a hero in the struggle against Israel.

Issawi, a political activist and hunger striker, was freed from Shita prison as part of a U.S.-brokered package of prisoner releases to restart Mideast peace talks.

Twenty-six other Palestinian prisoners were released Tuesday, ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Israel on Wednesday. All were convicted in connection with the killing of Israelis.

The prisoner release has provoked strong protests from Israeli groups.

Upon Issawi's release, 2,000 supporters crowded the small suburb that houses only 25 families.

Issawi spent nearly 10 years in prison after being arrested in Ramallah in 2002 during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

He was released in 2011 along with 1,027 Palestinian prisoners as a result of an Egypt-brokered deal between Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli government for the return of Israeli Defense Force soldier Gilad Shalit.

Issawi began a nine-month hunger strike in July 2012 to protest his re-arrest after Israeli officials said he had breached the terms of his release by leaving Jerusalem and entering the West Bank. He is banned by Israel from entering the West Bank.

He survived on water containing fortified vitamins and electrolytes for nine months.

"I had no choice but to starve myself in protest of the imprisonment and wider conditions of the prisoners in Israel," he told USA TODAY in an interview.

He said he reached a critical point in April 2013 when the doctors became worried he would die after he'd lost half his body weight.

"My heart beat reached 24-28 beats per minute," he said. "After a medical examination the doctor told me it was getting dangerous as my heart could stop beating at any moment and I had the option of either going back to Jerusalem or dying."

Israeli and Palestinian officials brokered a deal last April that Issawi would serve another eight months but would then be released to his home in Issawiya if he agreed to end his hunger strike. It is the first time he's been able to speak openly with the news media.

Israelis such as Lizi Hameira, 38, of Tel Aviv are angry about the prisoner release. "The story of Issawi is the climax of absurd," he said. "He was released during the Shalit deal and he returned to terror. He was arrested again and because of a hunger strike a judge allowed him to be released last week.

"The first thing Issawi did was be filmed being released saying at his welcome reception that Israeli soldiers should be kidnapped," Hameira said.

Meir Indor, head of a group representing families who have lost relatives killed by Palestinians, said the Israeli government needs public support if it wants to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

"Who is more suited to speak on the issue of Palestinian prisoner release than the victims of terror, who feel they've sacrificed so much and the justice system has collapsed around them," Indor said.

"When you're dealing with terrorism you need the voice of the nation. The voice of the nation is today the voice of the victim because the nation identifies with the victims, the families."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Freed Palestinian a hero to some, villain to others

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