On Tuesday, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered in Gaza City's Al-Katiba Park to celebrate the return of more than 400 Palestinian political prisoners released by Israel in return for captive soldier Gilad Shalit. The prisoners who were sent to Gaza, 334 of them, entered the Strip via Egypt at the Rafah crossing. While their families waited in keen anticipation, with some not having seen their loved ones free for almost three decades, busloads of the prisoners entered Palestine wearing sashes, waving in jubilation. They were met by senior members of the Hamas-led government, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Dr. Ahmed Bahr.
Similar scenes took place for 96 prisoners who were released into the occupied West Bank. Initially, they were due to cross the border at Beituniya but families waiting there were told that the plan had been changed; many relative were angered and frustrated. Nevertheless, when the prisoners finally did arrive in Ramallah, they were greeted by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other political leaders, including some from Hamas in a show of reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions.
It was a bittersweet moment for some prisoners as they were not only being released from prison but also exiled from their homeland. Many of those who arrived in Gaza are actually from the West Bank; yet others were transferred beyond the borders of Palestine altogether to a life of exile in countries like Turkey and Qatar. This did not dishearten one man. Ahmed Abu Tata, a Palestinian from the West Bank released in Gaza, said that although he was unable to be with his family, "Palestinians are all one family… it doesn't matter where we are, the West Bank, Gaza or the 1948 territories… it is all our home".
MEMO Photographer: Mohammed Asad