Haniyeh - AP - Oct. 18, 2011
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, left, stands with released Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Al Hasani, center, in Gaza City, Oct. 18, 2011. Photo by AP
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Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Tuesday a strategic turning point in Hamas’s struggle against Israel.

“This is a strategic turning point in our struggle against the Zionist enemy,” Haniyeh said at a celebration in Gaza on Tuesday evening, adding “it was thanks to our resistance that we were able to release the land and the people.”

Hamas freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Tuesday after holding him in captivity for over five years. Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his return.

The Palestinian leader told the cheering crowd that he committed to two main things as part of the Shalit deal that were testimony to Hamas’s dedication to the entire Palestinian people.

“First of all, the Palestinians released were from all Palestinian groups and factions, and secondly, the prisoners were from all parts of Palestine,” Haniyeh said.

The Hamas leader said that the different Palestinian movements left their differences behind for the sake of the “brave prisoners”, adding that the Palestinians released belonged to a number of different factions including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PRC and the Popular Front.

Haniye noted that even a Christian prisoner was released.

The crowd burst into applause several times during Haniyeh’s address, calling out “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great).

Earlier Tuesday, the Gaza Strip and West Bank gave a jubilant welcome to hundreds of the Palestinians freed from Israeli prisons.

In Ramallah, thousands packed into the headquarters of the Palestinian presidency to greet prisoners released into the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas and Hassan Youssef, a senior member of the Hamas group, both delivered speeches in a rare show of national unity.

"We thank God for your return and your safety," Abbas said, greeting the prisoners. "You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland." He also said that Israel had promised him to free more prisoners following the two-stage swap. It was the first mention of such a release.

"We hope soon to see [Marwan] Barghouti and [Ahmed] Saadat, as well as every prisoner freed," Abbas told the thousands of cheering supporters and relatives, referring to two high-profile prisoners who Israel had refused to release.

Yousef said the deal "gives the Palestinians hope that more prisoners can be released."
Gaza declared a national holiday and schools were closed.

The road from the Egyptian border with Egypt was turned into a military zone and sealed off. Dozens of masked, heavily-armed men of the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam militia waited in convoy to escort buses carrying the freed men north to Gaza city.

"I think the deal represents something great for the Palestinian people. Those who are still in jail are happy for those who have been released." said Hamas deputy leader in exile, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who greeted prisoners arriving in Egypt from Israel.

Patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers as prisoners arrived to a heroes' welcome at the Rafah crossing. Some kissed the soil as they arrived. Some were carried on the shoulders of happy relatives. Women ululated and men chanted Allahu akbar.

Haniyeh also joined scores of officials to greet freed prisoners coming in from Egypt, along with hundreds of family members impatient for the big reunion.

Haniyeh kissed their foreheads, paying special respect to Yehya Al-Sinwar, a top Hamas security strategist who spent 23 years in jail, and his deputy Rawhi Mushtaha who was also serving a life sentence.

"Thank you to the forces of the resistance for returning us as liberated heroes," said one prisoner.

More than 100 of the 477 prisoners released in the first phase of the exchange were taken to the West Bank. The rest were brought to Gaza, apart from 41 who were due to fly out from Cairo to exile in Turkey, Syria or Qatar.

Hamas and other Gaza militant groups have vowed to seize more Israeli hostages for exchange until all 5,000 Palestinians still in Israeli prisons are released.

"The rest of the prisoners must be released because if they are not released in a normal way they will be released in other ways," said Hamas deputy leader Abu Marzouk.