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Oct-19-2011 09:36printcomments

First Freed Palestinians Welcomed Home in Prisoner Swap (VIDEO)

Photos and video of celebration direct from Palestine.

Gaza prisoner release
There was a mix of tears and cheers throughout the day as prisoners were reunited with their loved ones. Photos by Khaled Safi. Video by Haitham al Katib

(SALEM / GAZA) - The biggest party in the world took place in Palestine yesterday, and it does not look to be over very soon. Some report up to a million people gathered for the huge welcome home celebration of 477 Palestinians released from Israeli prisons.

It was the first of part of the two-phase event that will bring a total of 1027 Palestinians out from behind bars, a deal that Hamas reached with Israel in exchange for Gilad Shalit.

Shalit, now 25 years old, was a tank crewman captured in Israel in June 2006 and held over five years in the Gaza Strip. Israel targeted and disabled Gaza’s main power station in response, eliminating electricity to thousands of Gaza residents. The siege against Gaza went into full force then, and even the farmers and fishermen have been at high risk since.

Shalit was returned into Israeli hands yesterday, exactly per the plan. After ample celebration including meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was flown to his home in northern Israel.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected last ditch efforts of petitions from the public to stop the plan from going forward, put forth, saying “the prisoner exchange is a political and security issue,” and that there are “no grounds to intervene in a decision by the Israeli government”. Though there were many against the deal, a survey revealed that 79 percent of Israelis supported the prisoner exchange.

Before dawn on Tuesday, 334 of the released Palestinians aboard buses with Red Cross signage affixed headed for the Kerem Shalom crossing at the southern most point of the Israel Gaza border, with 96 more destined for the Ofer military camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah. 27 Female prisoners came from HaSharon Prison in central Israel, and joined the convoy of vehicles headed “home”.

As a lasting reminder of their captors, it was reported that the first prisoners were presented to the world with their hands and feet still manacled, though dressed in civilian clothing.

Some of those released have been incarcerated most of their lives. One man, Adnan Maragha, served 22 years. Another 33 years. Every story is unique and tragic, regardless of its history.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, members of the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, and tens of thousands welcomed the ex-prisoners on the southern end of Palestine as Tuesday was declared a national holiday. They erected a giant podium in Gaza City's al-Katiba Park where the prisoners were greeted after crossing into Palestine from Egypt.

Three days of celebrations are taking place across the occupied West Bank, with President Mahmoud Abbas welcoming the anxiously-awaited citizens there. Cheers and laughter reverberated for miles, tears of joy seemingly never ending.

Sadly, at the Beituniya border crossing, plans were changed and prisoners were not allowed to go through the checkpoint to meet their waiting families, buses went to another crossing instead. The crowd was very frustrated with the announcement that came over the loud speaker, and some people threw stones at the border post, which was quickly responded by Israelis with tear gas and water cannons. Not the happy event they were hoping for, but it was a temporary setback.

The ex-prisoners were finally allowed to exit the bounds of the buses, and cheerfully fell into the arms of their loved ones. Though this time of elevated emotions will pass, it will not soon be forgotten. Those that have suffered the loss of family and friends will forever appreciate the gift of their presence once again, and the resolve for freedom is made ever stronger.

550 more Palestinians are planned to be freed later this year in another prisoner swap. More than 5,000 Palestinians are still sitting in Israeli prisons, waiting. Many were arrested for taking up arms against Israel; many were arrested on questionable charges by any standard.

There are hundreds of minor children being held for throwing rocks or lesser charges. None of them have yet been released.

WATCH THE VIDEO REPORT BELOW, Produced by Bonnie King:


Bonnie King has been with since August '04, when she became Publisher. Bonnie has served in a number of positions in the broadcast industry; TV Production Manager at KVWB (Las Vegas WB) and Producer/Director for the TV series "Hot Wheels in Las Vegas", posts as TV Promotion Director for KYMA (NBC), and KFBT (Ind.), Asst. Marketing Director (SUPERSHOPPER MAGAZINE), Director/Co-Host (Coast Entertainment Show), Radio Promotion Director (KBCH/KCRF), and Newspapers In Education/Circulation Sales Manager (STATESMAN JOURNAL NEWSPAPER). Bonnie has a depth of understanding that reaches further than just behind the scenes, and that thoroughness is demonstrated in the perseverance to correctly present each story with the wit and wisdom necessary to compel and captivate viewers. View articles written by Bonnie King

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Anonymous October 20, 2011 10:02 pm (Pacific time)

One soldier for 1000 terrorists. Israel is committing suicide. There is one question, why even put these terrorists in prison? Just do what they do, execute them on the spot. Where is the video from the terrorists saying that they will abduct more Israeli soldiers to get the rest of these scrumbags out of prison? Where is the video which says that Israel will be hit with a lot of terrorist attacks? I guess I don't see this in this paper. You rather put some pathetic video from a terrorist coming home on this side. That shows me who and what you are. Anti Israel, anti America, feel sorry for the terrorists and wish the destruction of Israel. You are a disgrace, you and you whole paper. And you call yourself a reporter? Shame on you

Editor: Wrong, you are behind an apartheid government and we will never accept this as human beings, Israel stands accused of massive human rights violations, but then you support apartheid and like murder, it shines through clearly, whereas we believe every human has the same right to live.  You are obviously a person who supported South Africa's politics, don't deny it, and if you were a German in the 30's you would be the first on your block to sign up for the party, because you support a one-religion government and I say forget it, we will go to our deaths exposing your kind of politics.  Israel is terrorism, thank God there are good people there trying to help, thank God for some small dose of sanity. 

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.