Crowds of Palestinians, many of them overwhelmed and in tears, welcomed home hundreds of freed detainees in the West Bank and Gaza on Tuesday, under a landmark prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
In Gaza City, the Hamas government staged a massive rally welcoming home the first group of prisoners being exchanged for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The group’s top Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh addressed a 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 told the cheering thousands gathered at the welcome rally.
Hamas, which earlier this year signed a reconciliation deal with its longtime rival faction Fatah, has emphasised that the deal brings home members of various factions and includes a Christian Palestinian.
“The sons of this people are one,” Haniyeh said. “Fatah sons are like Hamas and other factions are also sons to us.”
The prisoner exchange, under which Israel is releasing 1,027 Palestinian detainees in two stages, began to unfold early on Tuesday morning.
As Shalit was transferred to Israel via Egypt, Israel began to free a first group of 477 prisoners across the Palestinian territories and inside Israel.
In Gaza, they came across the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah in a convoy of eight buses accompanied by several Hamas cars and a vehicle belonging to the Red Cross.
On the Palestinian side they were greeted by relatives and high-ranking members of the Hamas movement, which inked the historic deal securing the prisoner releases in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.
Men wept as they embraced their sons and brothers, while women, some of them draped in the Palestinian flags and the green banner of Hamas, ululated.
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.”
In the West Bank, dozens of prisoners were taken directly to the Muqataa, the seat of the Palestinian presidency in Ramallah, where thousands of people waved flags and danced.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas addressed the crowd, flanked, in a rare sign of unity, by members of the Hamas movement from the West Bank.
“Your sacrifices and your efforts and your work has not been in vain. You have sacrificed and fought,” he said, as the crowd chanted “God is greatest.”
“Your cause has been and remains in our hearts,” he added. “God willing we will see every single prisoner, male and female, return to their homeland.”
In the crowd, many seemed completely overtaken by the emotion of the reunion, clinging to their relatives, and in some cases even fainting at the sight of them.
Israel is releasing a total of 1,027 detainees, the first 477 on Tuesday and a second group of 550 within two months.
Hundreds of those included in the exchange were convicted for their involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis, but the Palestinians regard the detainees as heroes, calling them political prisoners.
Among the returning prisoners, many expressed a sense of sadness that they were leaving behind other Palestinian detainees, including some high-profile figures who Israel refused to release.
Tawfiq Abdallah, 52, who served 26 years of a life sentence in Israeli prison, said it was difficult to describe his feelings.
“I feel a mixture of happiness and pain,” he said. “Happiness because I am out and can see the light, but pain at the brothers I have left behind.”
Nearby, 40-year-old Nayef Nidal, free after 17 years in prison, was similarly lost for words.
“I really can’t describe my feelings, but I hope all the mothers of the prisoners will be happy,” he said, collapsing into the arms of his relatives.
In east Jerusalem, families gathered near the Mount of Olives to receive their relatives, waiting from the early hours of the morning in the clear, cold air.
Mohammed Hussein Shehada was there to receive his daughter Sana, who was imprisoned in 2002.
“I am so happy. I was really scared I would die before I saw her,” he said. “She is equal to 10 of my sons.”