Forty-two released Palestinian prisoners arrived in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Qatar on Tuesday after being set free as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas.
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The prisoners are considered the most notorious of 1,027 Palestinians and Israeli Arabs being released by Israel in exchange for abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip for five years and four months. Shalit was released Tuesday in return for 477 prisoners. The rest will be released in two months time.
Of the 42 deported prisoners, 16 went to Damascus, Syria, 15 to Qatar, 10 Turkey, and one to Jordan.
Muhammad Waal, who was reportedly to serve a sentence of more than 1,600 years for his involvement in suicide attacks, spoke to Al Jazeera upon his arrival in Doha, the Qatari capital. "It's a historic moment," he said. "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."
Jordanian Ahlam Tamimi, who was serving 16 life sentences for assisting in the 2001 suicide attack at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, was permitted to return home to Jordan. Speaking to Al Jazeera upon her arrival in Amman, Tamimi expressed loyalty to Hamas' military wing. "Allah has chosen soldiers for him on this land, and they are the soldiers of the al-Qassam brigades [Hamas' military wing]," she said.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, released prisoners were welcomed with celebrations. 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.
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."