GAZA CITY: Tens of thousands of flag-waving Palestinians celebrated the homecoming Tuesday of hundreds of prisoners exchanged for an Israeli soldier, with the crowd exhorting militants to seize more soldiers for future swaps.
Hamas, which had negotiated the release, organized the celebration that turned into a show of strength for the Islamic militant movement that had seized Gaza from its moderate rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007.
The joyous crowd crammed into a sandy lot, where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit at an army base near the Gaza border.
"The people want a new Gilad!" the crowd chanted.
Many hoisted green Hamas flags, while a far smaller number raised the banner of rival movement Fatah, led by 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 had lined the streets to cheer on the convoy.
In the West Bank, 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. At one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.
Still, Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap, the most significant exchange for the Palestinians in nearly three decades. In years of negotiations with Israel, Abbas has only been able to secure the release of those who had little time left on their sentences.
In contrast, most 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." Another 550 are to be freed in two months.
In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters."
He suggested that his method of negotiations was also 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 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. Erekat said Abbas would now ask international mediators that Israel keep the promise.
More than 300 of the prisoners arrived in Gaza, the rest were in the West Bank.
In both locations, relatives eagerly awaited them.
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 away from the West Bank, which has relatively open borders with Israel. Gaza is tightly sealed by an Israeli border fence.
Sobhia Jundiya of the West Bank town of Bethlehem traveled 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’s difficult for West Bankers to obtain such permission from Israel or Egypt.
Israel prevents most movement between the West Bank and Gaza.
In the West Bank, Fakhri Barghouti was carried on the shoulders of one man and was surrounded by chanting relatives. Sentenced to life for killing an Israeli, Barghouti, 57, had spent 34 years in prison, making him one of the longest-serving inmates.
"There will be no happiness as long as our brothers are still in jail," he said. "I can’t feel good when I’m leaving my brothers behind."
His son, Shadi, is serving a 27-year sentence for involvement in an armed group. At one point, he shared a cell with his father.
Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of relatives of prisoners had waited at a West Bank checkpoint for a first glimpse at their loved ones, but the buses carrying the inmates were instead driven directly to Abbas’ headquarters in the West Bank.
Clashes erupted between about 200 young Palestinians at the checkpoint and Israeli soldiers several hundred yards (meters) away, after the families were told they had waited in the wrong place. The troops fired tear gas and Palestinians threw stones for about a half-hour. Some of the young men climbed a fence near the checkpoint and draped it with Hamas and Fatah flags. –Daragmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Rafah, Egypt.