Palestinian Prisoners Return to Heroes' Welcome

Nearly 200,000 people gathered in Al-Katiba plaza, central Ramallah, to greet prisoners who arrived in afternoon; the 96 prisoners also treated to reception at the Muqata.

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Huge Palestinian crowds in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday celebrated Israel's release of hundreds of prisoners to obtain the return of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and called for more kidnappings to secure the freedom of yet more detainees.

Nearly 200,000 people gathered in the Al-Katiba plaza in central Ramallah, to greet the prisoners who arrived there in the afternoon. The 96 prisoners were also treated to a reception at the Muqata.

Throngs celebrating Israel’s release of prisoners in the streets of Gaza City, October 18, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the crowd and praised the prisoners' fortitude. He expressed the hope that Hamas leaders such as Ibrahim Hamad and Abdullah Barghouti would also soon be released.

The nearly 300 prisoners who returned to the Gaza Strip were also greeted by excited crowds of thousands, who praised Hamas for the prisoner swap by shouting "We want a new Shalit."

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh stressed the "removal of borders" within "Palestine" as a result of the prisoner exchange, noting that those released were from the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

He said this was one of the principles guiding Hamas during the negotiations - to stress the unity of the land. The other, he said, was to make sure that prisoners were released from all Palestinian factions, and not just from one group or another.

He described the Shalit deal as "a strategic turning point" in relations with "the occupation."

The exchange operation began at 2:30 A.M. yesterday morning, when an Israel Prison Service paddy wagon came into range of the security cameras at the Hasharon Prison. In it was prisoner Wiham Amasha, who was to be taken to the Katzrin police station for release.

Deputy Israel Prison Service commissioner Micky Halfon gave the green light for the vehicle to leave the prison compound, setting in motion the day's events.

As the paddy wagons lined up to receive the prisoners due to be released from the facility, right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir and five other people arrived at the prison gates to protest and try to block the vehicles. The six were detained for questioning.

During the subsequent four hours, the Palestinian security prisoners were transferred. Those prisoners destined for Gaza or slated to be deported to other countries were brought to the Kerem Shalom crossing, while those being freed to the West Bank were brought to the Ofer military base.

At 7 A.M., the first part of the operation was completed, as all 477 prisoners due to be released were in position. At that point, the final identification of the prisoners by the International Red Cross began. When that was completed, the prisoners at Kerem Shalom were put on a bus to Sinai, while the prisoners at Ofer began to be released into the West Bank.

At 9:25 A.M., two female prisoners, Amana Mona and Wafa Alabi, suddenly declared that they refused to be transferred to Gaza, which held up the proceedings.

After half an hour, Egypt agreed to accept Mona, while Alabi was persuaded to go to Gaza after all. Thus, Hamas could announce that all the prisoners bound for either Egypt or Gaza had reached their destination.

At 11:10 A.M., Gilad Shalit was interviewed by Egyptian television, saying, "I am very excited. I haven't seen people for a long time. I missed my family, I missed meeting people and talking to them."

Shortly after, it was reported that all the Ofer prisoners had been taken to their West Bank destinations, and that the Israeli Arab prisoners had also been released to their homes.

Sami Younis, 79, the oldest prisoner released yesterday in the Shalit exchange, was welcomed home in the Israeli Arab town of Arara with a relatively modest reception, at his request. Some 200 people, waving Palestinian and Islamic Movement flags, met him at the town entrance and accompanied him home.

Younis had served 29 years of a 40-year sentence for his membership in the terror cell that murdered soldier Avraham Bromberg in 1980, as he was en route to his home in Zichron Yaakov. Younis never expressed regret for the murder, but said yesterday that "what was correct for that time is no longer correct. Since the Oslo accord, I've become a soldier of peace. Sixty years of war and bloodshed is enough."

At 11:15 A.M., as Gilad Shalit's interview with Egyptian television played on TV in the background, members of the Ziada family in Lod were busily making their final preparations to receive the family patriarch, Muhammad, who had spent over 20 years in a military prison for being involved a failed 1987 terror attack on a Tel Aviv bus.

His partner in that attempt, Mukhlas Burgal, also of Lod, was released yesterday as well.

"He doesn't have blood on his hands," said Ziada's daughter, Hanan. "He's not a murderer. We are also Israeli citizens, and we want to convey our good wishes to the Shalit family.

"There is no doubt that my father went in [to prison] with certain ideas, and came out with different ones," she said.

After a few long moments, the police vehicle pulled up to the home, and Ziada emerged. Dozens of cheering well-wishers, one playing a darbuka, accompanied him to the rear courtyard of his home, where a reception tent awaited him.

At the same time, the chaos in the Burgal home also began, as he arrived home and was greeted by shouts, dancing, the waving of Palestinian flags, and the slaughter of a sheep for a festive meal.

Muhammad J'barin of Umm al-Fahm, who helped murder a Palestinian collaborator in 1987 and had been imprisoned for 23 years, arrived in Umm al-Fahm at 11:30 A.M., and was greeted in the city by a large celebration, at which hundreds carried Palestinian and Islamic Movement flags.

A convoy of cars later chaperoned him home, where representatives of the Islamic Movement welcomed him.

J'barin was released from Megiddo Prison along with Younis and another Israeli Arab, Ali Amaria from Ibtin, who threw a fragmentation grenade into a crowd in Haifa and wounded 29 people in 1988.

Khaled Muhassin, a resident of Issawiya in East Jerusalem, was released after serving 25 years of a life sentence for a shooting in which no one was hurt. When he entered prison he had a 2-year-old daughter and his wife was pregnant with their second daughter; now he has eight grandchildren, most of whom he had never seen.

"We are grateful to God, and after that to Hamas and Fatah," said Ibrahim Raad, Muhassin's nephew.

Hundreds of villagers greeted him and Samar Al-Isawi, another resident who had been released.