Hundreds 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, organized 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 rivals President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.
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.
Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, addressed the crowd that Hamas said numbered over 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, 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.
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".
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 Hamas armed wing.
"I can’t believe that my husband is back today, I’m just amazed," she said.
"He spent 25 years in prison. He left behind his children and he’s returning to find 18 grandchildren."
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 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.
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."
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)