RAMALLAH – Thousands of Palestinians gathered in the West Bank on Tuesday to celebrate the release of 477 prisoners in the first stage of the Gilad Schalit exchange.

Chants of “The people want a new Schalit,” could be heard in Ramallah as Hamas and Fatah supporters waved flags together.

RELATED:
Hearing on Schalit deal petition ends; no decision issued
Gallery: Gazans prepare for prisoner exchange
'Pardons for Schalit deal prisoners to be finished on time'


During a rally at the Mukata presidential headquarters in the city, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hailed the release of the prisoners as a victory for the Palestinian people.

In a rare display of national unity, he and Hassan Youssef, a senior member of Hamas, spoke from the same podium as people rushed to the front to greet their released relatives.

Abbas promised the prisoners that they will see the results of their struggle and sacrifices in the independent Palestinian state.

“Your cause was and is still in our heart and minds. We see some of you out, and the rest will follow soon if God wills,” he told the released prisoners.

Abbas referred to the prominent Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, the ill Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine secretary-general Ahmad Sadaat, and Hamas military commander in the West Bank Ibrahim Hamed, who were left out of the deal, expressing hope they will be released soon.

“I call upon the Israeli government to keep its promise,” he said.

Palestinians around the world were watching as the prisoners were being released, Abbas said.

“Dear brothers and sisters, your families in the Palestinian territories and around the world are looking at you now and are happy that you are being released,” Abbas said. “I ask Allah to forgive these martyrs.”

Upon their arrival, released prisoners went to Yasser Arafat’s tomb to place garlands of flowers there.

The president’s speech was overpowered by the voices of the families welcoming their relatives.

People gathered across the presidential headquarters, greeting their loved ones with hugs, kisses and tears.

“After 30 years in prison, what do you expect me to feel when I see the sun for the first time?” Ibrahim Jaber asked.

He told The Jerusalem Post that his first priority is to build his house, and that he missed his family a lot.

The prisoners ended their hunger strike on Monday, and Jaber told the Post that the Prisons Service agreed to most of their demands.

Saadat, however, continued his strike.

The Public Servants Union gave workers the day off on Tuesday, starting at 10 a.m., to allow greater participation in the rallies.

Palestinians across the West Bank waited for their released relatives in their hometowns, where festivities were also held.

People are expected to visit the big tents pitched for the occasion across the West Bank into next week to congratulate the released prisoners.

Reuters contributed to this report.
Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit


Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger