Forty Palestinians freed by Israel under a prisoner swap deal with Hamas but deemed to be too dangerous by that country to be allowed to return to Palestine have arrived in Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and Syria.
The prisoners were released as part of an exchange on Tuesday that involved the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners for the freeing of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas more than five years ago.
A total of 1,027 Palestinians will be released as part of the swap, the initiation of which led to widespread celebrations in both Palestine and Israel.
Of the 40 prisoners sent into exile, 15 went to Damascus, Syria, 11 to Ankara, Turkey, one to Amman, Jordan and the rest to Qatar.
"No words can describe my feelings," said Mohammed Wael, who was to serve a sentence of more than 1,600 years for his involvement in suicide attacks, after his arrival in Doha, the Qatari capital.
"It’s a historic moment. Not returning home leaves a scar, but we consider all Arab countries as our second home. As long as there are prisoners in Israel, the mujahideen will always try to free them."
On her arrival in Amman, Ahlam Tamimi, a former TV reporter who was serving 16 life sentences for assisting suicide attacks, said: "Allah has chosen soldiers for him on this land, and they are the soldiers of the al-Qassam brigades [Hamas’ military wing]."
The US, meanwhile, expressed "concerns" on Tuesday regarding the release of some of the 477 prisoners freed by Israel in the first phase of the prisoner exchange.
"We have looked at some of these individuals and we’ve communicated our position … to the Israeli government," Mark Toner, a spokesman for the US state department, said. He declined to elaborate on the nature of those concerns.
He said that the US respected Israel’s "sovereign decision" to release the prisoners, but a subsequent statement said that "as a matter of principle, the US opposes the release of individuals who have been convicted of crimes against Americans".
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, saluted the release of Shalit, saying he had been held for "far too long".
The Afghan Taliban also released a statement in response to the prisoner exchange, terming it "the triumph of the will of the Muslim Palestinian nation" and "one of the heaviest blows" to Israel.
In Palestine, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated the homecoming of the prisoners.
Hamas, which negotiated the exchange, organised a celebration in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday that turned into a show of strength for the Palestinian resistance group that governs the territory and its rival Fatah party.
The joyous crowd crammed into a sandy plot of land, where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting the capture of Shalit at an army base near the Gaza border.
Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, addressed the crowd that Hamas said numbered more than 200,000, praising the kidnap of Shalit as a positive operation that had won the freedom of hundreds of Palestinians.
"Some described Shalit’s captivity as a worthless adventure, but today they are proven wrong," he said
"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.
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, President Mahmoud Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousands – praising the released prisoners as "freedom fighters".
Abbas shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in a display of national unity.
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 whom they regard as "freedom fighters".
Raed Abu Lebdeh, who spent 13 years in prison, was overcome as he embraced his 13-year-old daughter Miriam for the first time.
"It’s an indescribable joy to see my children," he said, holding his weeping child to his chest.
"I feel as though I was born today, it’s the very first time that I’ve seen my father and been able to hug him," she said.
Suhair al-Ghul, whose husband Omar was sentenced to life in prison, arrived at Rafah with her two sons, both armed and wearing the uniform of the al-Qassam brigades.
"He spent 25 years in prison. He left behind his children and he’s returning to find 18 grandchildren," she said.
Among those arriving in Gaza were prisoners who grew up in the West Bank, but were being deported to Gaza.
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.
"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.
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 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 co-operation," he said.
"Gilad feels well, he suffers a few injuries because of inadequate treatment – the result of shrapnel and also medical conditions related to lack of exposure to sunlight," said Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father.
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.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)