RAMALLAH – Palestinians started their celebratory preparations for welcoming the prisoners due to be released on Tuesday in the first stage of the Gilad Schalit deal.

Chief of the High Committee on Palestinian Prisoners’ Affairs, Amin Shoman, told The Jerusalem Post that the first venue for tomorrow’s reception will be Ofer Prison, near Betunia, about 3 kilometers south of Ramallah.

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Thousands of people are expected to head there in the early morning to wait for the prisoners expected to be released from Ofer to the West Bank.

Shoman said the PA minister of Palestinian prisoners’ affairs, Issa Qaraqe, and the minister of civil affairs, Hussain al-Sheikh, will be at Ofer alongside the Red Cross representatives to guarantee the implementation of the deal with the Israeli authorities.

The Hamas leader in the West Bank, Hassan Yousef, told the Post that since his movement does not have any relations with Israel, the PA would be the one responsible for the implementation process.

“There were several calls between the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee to finalize the first stage of the deal,” Yousef added.

After released prisoners greet their families, they will be then taken by buses to the central reception venue, the presidential headquarters in Ramallah.

Yousef said all Hamas members and supporters will go there as well. It is unusual for Hamas to celebrate in the Fatah presidential headquarters.

Shoman said the released prisoners will go first to Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum to place garlands of flowers on his grave. Two main statements are expected there, the first one from PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the second from a newly-released prisoner.

Shoman said this prisoner might be Na’el Barghouthi, the oldest prisoner expected to be released this week, who spent more than 30 years in Israeli prisons serving a life sentence.

Following the speeches, the crowd will head over to the Red Cross building in Ramallah, to show solidarity with the prisoners’ hunger strike.

Tents were pitched and several rallies were held there to support the hunger strike that started on September 27.

Yousef said Hamas asked the Israeli authorities to meet the striking prisoners’ demands.

Shoman also mentioned that prisoner Ahed Abu Gholmeh is still negotiating with the Prisons Service to answer to the prisoners’ demands.

“If the Prisons Service agrees to the prisoners’ demands, the prisoners’ hunger strike will be over,” Shoman said. “I think the released prisoners will want to go home with their families, whom they have not hugged for years.”

Families throughout the West Bank are expected to hold open-air festivities, where relatives and friends will come to greet the released prisoners and congratulate them.

The head of the Palestinian Civil Servants’ Union, Bassam Zakarneh, said the union will not give workers a day off to participate in the celebrations.

Zakarneh, a member of Fatah, said the union will encourage the civil servants to attend the rallies, but is not authorized to give them the day off. He said interested people will participate anyway.

“They don’t need a day off for that.”

Earlier today, the same union gave workers a two-hour break to allow them to join a rally in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners.

Civil servant Maher Zaher, 32, criticized the union’s decision, saying this will help lessen the PA and Fatah’s popularity in the street.

“They should show people they are happy, even if their rival Hamas made this deal with Israel.”

Shoman believes that no clashes or violence will occur tomorrow, adding that tomorrow is a “national celebration.”

Click for full JPost coverage of Gilad Schalit

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