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Mass rallies celebrate freed Palestinian prisoners

- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Tens of thousands of flag-waving Palestinians in Gaza celebrated the homecoming Tuesday of hundreds of prisoners swapped for an Israeli soldier, and the crowd exhorted militants to seize more soldiers for future exchanges.

Hamas, which negotiated Tuesday's swap, organized a mass celebration that turned into a show of strength for the Islamic militant movement that seized Gaza from its moderate rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007. Tens of thousands crammed into a sandy lot where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit's capture in a June 2006 at an army base near the Gaza border.

"The people want a new Gilad," the crowd chanted in a call for more attempts to capture Israeli soldiers in order to free thousands more Palestinian prisoners remaining in Israeli jail.

Thousands hoisted green Hamas flags, while a far smaller number raised the banners of the rival movement Fatah, led by Mr. Abbas. The released prisoners were making their way from the border with Egypt, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, to Gaza City in the north, and many thousands were lining the street to cheer on the convoy.

In the West Bank, Mr. Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand, including released prisoners and their relatives. In an attempt at unity, he shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in the West Bank, and at one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.

Still, Mr. Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap, the most significant for the Palestinians in nearly three decades. Over years of negotiating with Israel, Mr. Abbas has been able only to bring about the release of those who had little time left on their sentences.

In contrast, a majority of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with "blood on their hands." An additional 550 were to be freed in two months.

In his speech, Mr. Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters."

He suggested that his method of negotiations also was bearing fruit, saying that "there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes."

His comments marked the first time he had referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment. An Abbas aide, Saeb Erekat, later explained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had promised a release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners following any Schalit deal. Mr. Erekat said Mr. Abbas now would ask international mediators that Israel keep the promise.

More than 300 of the prisoners arrived in Gaza; the rest, in the West Bank.

In both locations, relatives eagerly awaited the returnees.

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

"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."

Among those arriving in Gaza were prisoners who grew up in the West Bank but were being deported to Gaza. Israel's security chiefs have said they wanted to keep prisoners still deemed dangerous from the West Bank, which has relatively open borders with Israel. Gaza is tightly sealed by an Israeli border fence.

Sobhia Jundiya, a resident of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, traveled to Egypt with her husband to catch a brief glimpse of their son, Ibrahim, 28, 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, as she began crying. "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 their son because the prisoners' convoy did not stop during its brief swing through Egypt. The couple will try to go to Gaza, but it's difficult for West Bankers to obtain such a permit from Israel or Egypt.

Israel prevents most movement between the West Bank and Gaza.

In the West Bank, released prisoners also were given a hero's welcome.

Fakhri Barghout, 57, was carried on the shoulders of one man and was surrounded by chanting relatives. Sentenced to life for killing an Israeli, he spent 34 years in prison, making him one of the longest-serving inmates.

"There will be no happiness as long as our brothers still in jail," he said. "I can't feel good when I'm leaving my brothers behind."

He leaves behind a son, Shadi, who is serving a 27-year sentence for involvement in an armed group and at one point shared his father's cell.

Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of relatives of prisoners waited at a West Bank checkpoint for a first glimpse at their loved ones. However, the buses carrying the prisoners instead were driven directly to Mr. Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank.

Clashes erupted between about 200 young Palestinians at the checkpoint and Israeli soldiers several hundred yards away after the families were told they had waited in the wrong place. Israeli troops fired tear gas, and Palestinians threw stones for about a half-hour. Some of the young men climbed atop a separation fence near the checkpoint and draped it with flags of Hamas and Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement.

Mohammed Daragmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed from Rafah, Egypt.

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