Palestinians celebrate release of prisoners

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Released Hamas militant Fakhre Barghouti waves to the crowd after arriving in the West Bank city
of Ramallah, Tuesday,Oct 18, 2011. The Hamas militant group released an Israeli soldier Tuesday more
than five years after his capture, turning him over to Egyptian mediators in exchange
for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.


Al Jazeera

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have celebrated the homecoming of over 400 prisoners released in the first phase of an agreement brokered with Israel for the exchange of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier.

Hamas, which negotiated the exchange, organised a celebration in the enclave on Tuesday that turned into a show of strength for the Palestinian resistance group that governs the Gaza Strip and rivals President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.

Thousands take to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank to welcome prisoners released in exchange for Gilad Shalit

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Hundreds of people gathered in Ramallah to celebrate the return of prisoners freed under a swap deal
with Israel which freed captured Israeli soldier Gilad SHlait after five years of captivity

The joyous crowd crammed into a sandy lot, where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting the capture of Shalit at an army base near the Gaza border.

“The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, suggesting the abductions of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

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A Palestinian prisoner gestures as he enters Gaza via the Rafah crossing from Egypt
October 18, 2011. The Gaza Strip and West Bank gave a jubilant welcome on Tuesday to
hundreds of Palestinians freed from Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit,
the Israeli soldier held for five years by the enclave’s Islamist rulers, Hamas.

More than 5,000 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons – some for taking up arms against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, others on what rights groups call questionable charges.

In the West Bank, Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand – praising the released prisoners as “freedom fighters”.

Abbas shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in a display of national unity.

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Palestinian prisoners gestures as they enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing from Egypt October 18,
2011. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home to a national outpouring of joy on Tuesday after five
years in captivity as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners exchanged for him were greeted with kisses f
rom Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

At one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.

Friends and family members wept tears of joy for the released prisoners whom Israel considers “terrorists”, but they regard as “freedom fighters”.

‘Indescribable happiness’

In Gaza City, Azhar Abu Jawad, 30, celebrated the return of a brother who had been sentenced to life for killing an Israeli in 1992.

She said that she last saw him eight years ago, before Israel banned visits by Gazans.

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Palestinian prisoners cross to the southern Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side of the Rafah border on October 18,
2011 upon their release from Israeli prisons under a landmark deal to free abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after
five years of Hamas captivity.

“My happiness is indescribable,” she said. “We’ll get him a bride and everything. I just spoke to him. He’s so happy. This is a reminder God doesn’t forget anyone.”

Sobhia Jundiya of the West Bank town of Bethlehem travelled to Egypt with her husband to catch a brief glimpse of their 28-year-old son, Ibrahim, who was being released after 10 years. He had been sentenced to multiple life terms for an attack that killed 12 and wounded 50.

“It’s better he be in Gaza even if I can’t see him. It’s better than prison in Israel,” she said.

“I hope to see him for a few minutes,” she said, beginning to cry. “This is the day I have been dreaming of for 10 years. I haven’t touched his hand in 10 years.”

In the end, the Jundiyas were unable to see him because the prisoners’ convoy did not stop during its brief swing through Egypt. The couple will try to go to Gaza, but it is difficult for Palestinians living in the West Bank to obtain such permission from Israel or Egypt.

Israel prevents most movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and restricts movement between cities and towns in the West Bank.

Shalit’s hope

Gilad Shalit was handed over to Egyptian officials early on Tuesday at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and was then taken by Israeli officials to the Tel Nof air base.

In an interview with Egyptian television at Rafah, Shalit said that he hoped that the deal that allowed for his release would help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace.

“I will be very happy if all Palestinian prisoners are freed so they can go back to their families [...] I hope this deal could help reach peace between Israelis and the Palestinians and strengthen cooperation,” he said.

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Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, left, greets a released Palestinian prisoner
at the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. The Hamas
militant group released an Israeli soldier Tuesday more than five years after his capture,
turning him over to Egyptian mediators in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Saree Makdisi, an author and professor at the University of California, told Al Jazeera that the value of the prisoner swap should not be overestimated.

“We have to remember that the Israelis raid the West Bank literally on a nightly basis, usually ten times a day, an average of 300-400 raids a month,” he said.

“On all these raids, they collect prisoner after prisoner, so in an average month, they capture 300-400 prisoners, held against international law, held in appalling circumstances.”

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A freed Palestinian prisoner is hugged by a relative upon arrival at the Rafah crossing with Egypt
in the southern Gaza Strip October 18, 2011. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians
crossed Israel’s borders in opposite directions on Tuesday as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange
brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.

Palestinians have long argued that no peace agreement could be reached without the release of all Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Hamas reached a deal with Israel last week for the release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, who was captured in 2006 and has since been held in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian prisoners will be released in two phases.


See Related: Gilad Shalit reunited with his family

See Related: Gilad Shalit Agreement Archive

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