Palestinian families anxiously await prisoners' return

AFP , Tuesday 18 Oct 2011

Throngs of excited Palestinians gathered in the West Bank and Gaza from early Tuesday, preparing to greet prisoners released under a landmark exchange deal

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Palestinians wait at Beituniya checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah for the release of prisoners from Israeli jails October 18, 2011.(Photo: Reuters)

A group of 477 Palestinian prisoners, some held in Israeli jails for decades, were to be freed under a deal that will see a total of 1,027 Palestinians released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released by Hamas into Egyptian care at around 8:15 am (0615 GMT).

At the Ofer prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, thousands of men and women gathered in the early hours of the morning, braving the cold air, many of the men pulling on cigarettes and pacing to keep warm.

Some in the crowds waved green flags of the Hamas movement, which inked the landmark exchange deal with Israel, as well as the yellow flags of the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas -- and the Palestinian flag.

The atmosphere was festive, with some chanting "national unity, national unity" and clapping their hands.

Dozens of people were also gathering on the Mount of Olives in annexed east Jerusalem, awaiting the 15 prisoners who were expected to arrive home during the morning, an AFP correspondent said.

Outside Ofer prison, Lulia Makhamra, 62, was standing with a Palestinian flag draped over her head as she waited for the return of her son Mohammed Awad, who has served 10 years of a life sentence.

"I'm feeling a truly beautiful happiness, even though my other son is still in prison," she told AFP.

"I didn't believe that I would live to see Mohammed, but today I feel very, very happy."

Palestinian radio said the workers union in the West Bank called for employees to stop work at 10:00 am "to welcome home our prisoners."

At the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza, a delegation of senior Hamas officials accompanied by representatives of the prisoners families were waiting impatiently.

When the 297 prisoners arrive in Rafah, they will travel in convoy up to Gaza City where they will enter the city in a triumphal procession, kicking off massive celebrations which will be presided over by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas's Al-Aqsa television station was running wall-to-wall coverage of the exchange, playing patriotic songs over footage of crowds awaiting the prisoners' return.

In Gaza City, the streets were draped with the green flags of Hamas, which was one of three Gaza-based groups that participated in the 2006 capture of Shalit.

Tuesday's operation will see Israel freeing 477 prisoners, 297 of whom will be sent to Gaza. But only 133 of them are going 'home' -- with the rest being exiled there from their homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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