CROWDS of Palestinians, many of them overwhelmed and in tears, last night welcomed home hundreds of freed detainees in the West Bank and Gaza, under a landmark prisoner exchange.
The 477 prisoners, the first of two groups of Palestinian detainees being exchanged for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, arrived in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
In Gaza, they came across the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah in a convoy of eight buses accompanied by several Hamas cars and a Red Cross vehicle.
On the Palestinian side they were greeted by relatives and high-ranking members of Hamas, which inked the historic deal.
Men wept as they embraced their sons and brothers, while women, some of them draped in the Palestinian flags and the green banner of Hamas, ululated.
The prisoners were then being driven from the southern border crossing to Gaza City, where more than 200,000 people were waiting to greet the detainees at a rally.
Near Ramallah, hundreds of family members had gathered by the Ofer prison to receive their relatives, only to learn that Israel had decided to drop the detainees off at a separate point. Some began to throw stones at Israeli troops, who responded with teargas.
When the West Bank prisoners were finally delivered to the Palestinian side, they were taken to Ramallah and the seat of the Palestinian presidency, the Muqataa.
Thousands of Palestinians flocked to the building, waving flags and cheering as the detainees arrived in several buses.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the crowd, flanked, in a rare sign of unity, by members of Hamas from the West Bank.
“Your sacrifices and your efforts and your work has not been in vain. You have sacrificed and fought,” he said, as the crowd chanted “God is greatest.”
“Your cause has been and remains in our hearts. God willing, we will see every single prisoner, male and female, return to their homeland.”
In the crowd, many seemed completely overtaken by the emotion of the reunion, clinging to their relatives, and in some cases even fainting at the sight of them.
Among the returning prisoners, many expressed a sense of sadness they were leaving behind other detainees, including some of high-profile figures whom Israel refused to release.
Tawfiq Abdallah, 52, who served 26 years of a life sentence, said it was difficult to describe his feelings. “I feel a mixture of happiness and pain,” he said. “Happiness because I am out and can see the light, but pain at the brothers I have left behind.”
Nearby, 40-year-old Nayef Nidal, free after 17 years in prison, was similarly lost for words.
“I really can’t describe my feelings, but I hope all the mothers of the prisoners will be happy,” he said, collapsing into the arms of his relatives.
In east Jerusalem, families gathered near the Mount of Olives to receive their relatives, waiting from the early hours of the morning in the clear, cold air.
Mohammed Hussein Shehada was there to receive his daughter Sana, imprisoned in 2002. “I am so happy. I was really scared I would die before I saw her,” he said. “She is equal to 10 of my sons.”
Israel is releasing 1027 detainees, the first 477 last night and a second group of 550 within two months. Not all will return to Gaza and the West Bank. Turkey said it would take in some and NTV television reported that 10 Palestinians were expected in Istanbul.
About 30 prisoners will be deported to Syria, Qatar and Jordan.