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Jubilation after swap deal in Gaza

Oct. 18, 2011 7:58 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 20, 2011 1:50 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- The Palestinian leader in Gaza praised the release of hundreds of prisoners as a "historic moment," in an address late Tuesday to thousands of supporters.

Ismail Haniyeh said the resistance refused to back down on two demands -- to include leaders of all factions, and to include Palestinians from "the whole of Palestine," not just the West Bank and Gaza.

The deal included Christians, women and 320 detainees with life terms, he said.

"We kiss the hands and foreheads of the Palestinian resistance" for their heroic role, he said, adding that the Islamic world and free people everywhere shared in the joy Palestinians were feeling.

Haniyeh thanked Egypt for its role and said more detainees "will be released soon."

He spoke to a densely-packed sprawl of low-rise concrete on the Mediterranean coast in sight of Israel, as tens of thousands rallied before a stage decorated by a mural bearing portraits of top militants who were not released.

"We will not forget you," said the slogan.

Yehya Al-Sinwar, a top Hamas security strategist who spent 23 years in jail and is now tipped for a top post in the Hamas leadership, was cheered by the rally and mobbed on stage.

"I call on all the leaders of the Palestinian resistance factions and foremost the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam to shoulder the responsibility for liberating the remaining prisoners in the shortest time possible," he said.

"This must be turned immediately into a practical plan."

The web of electricity cables over Gaza's main streets was festooned with the green flags of Hamas.

A wall painting lampooned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, depicting him with his face ground into the dirt by the boot of a gunman, signing a paper with words "Swap deal".

In the West Bank, split from Gaza by Israeli territory, thousands including supporters of Hamas and its rival Fatah packed the compound of President Mahmoud Abbas for an official welcome ceremony.

"You will see the results of your struggle in the independent state with its capital Jerusalem," said Abbas, leader of Fatah which was driven out of Gaza by Hamas in a brief civil war in 2007.

In a display of national unity, he and Hassan Youssef, a senior member of arch-rival Hamas, spoke at the same podium.

Of 477 prisoners set free, 27 were women. More than twice as many went to Gaza as to the West Bank, while around 40 were flown from Cairo to exile in Turkey, Syria or Qatar. Under the deal, a further 550 will be liberated in the coming months.

Some 5,000 Palestinians still remain behind bars in Israel, many convicted of violent acts over years of armed resistance to Israel. But Hamas said the swap should give them hope of freedom as well.

A spokesman for Hamas' armed wing made a threat to capture more soldiers: "We say to the people of the enemy: Your leadership has brought upon you a new battle by refusing to grant freedom to the other prisoners."

Gunmen seized Shalit in a border raid in 2006. It has declared the prisoner exchange a vindication of its policy of armed resistance over the peace-seeking policy of Abbas.

Israel is setting free 1,027 Palestinians in return for Shalit. Some have spent 30 years and more in jail.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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