GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Tens of thousands of flag-waving Palestinians celebrated the homecoming Tuesday of hundreds of prisoners exchanged for an Israeli soldier, with the crowd and a freed Hamas leader exhorting militants to seize more soldiers for future swaps.
Hamas, which had negotiated the release, turned the celebration into a show of strength for the Islamic militant movement, which had seized Gaza from its moderate rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007.
The joyous crowd crammed into a grassy lot, where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit at an army base near the Gaza border. The prisoners – more than 300 out of 477 freed Tuesday were sent to Gaza – sat in rows of chairs on the stage.
Many in the crowd described long years of waiting to see their loved ones.
"I will kiss his head when he returns," said Huriya Awadallah, 75, of her 45-year-old brother who had spent 20 years in prison for killing an Israeli. "I am like his mother. I raised him," said the woman who pinned a photograph of her brother, Eid Musleh, to her dress.
Several thousand Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails, convicted of offenses ranging from masterminding deadly attacks to throwing stones. Many Palestinians see them as fighters for independence. The swap has reinforced a widespread conviction that Israel will release prisoners serving life sentences in only exchange for abducted soldiers – a view repeated by many at Tuesday's rally.
"The people want a new Gilad!" the crowd chanted, suggesting the abduction of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Yehiye Sinwar, a founder of Hamas' military wing, told the crowd that Palestinian militant groups must win freedom for the remaining prisoners by "all necessary means."
Sinwar, among those freed Tuesday, had been sentenced to life for his role in the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers in the 1980s. He stopped short of calling for new abductions in his speech, but did so in interviews earlier in the day.
In the West Bank, Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand, including released prisoners and their relatives. In an attempt at unity, he shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in the West Bank. At one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.
Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap, the most significant exchange for the Palestinians in nearly three decades. In years of negotiations with Israel, most of the prisoners released to Abbas were those with little time left on their sentences.
In contrast, most of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with "blood on their hands."
Of that group, 43 convicted of some of the bloodiest attacks against Israelis were sent to Egypt for eventual deportation to Qatar, Turkey and Syria. In the Egyptian capital of Cairo, they were greeted by Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal.
Mashaal portrayed the swap as an unequivocal victory for Hamas, saying that "Israel was forced to pay the price." He said hiding Schalit for more than five years in tiny Gaza was a "miracle and honor to the nation."
As part of the swap, Israel has agreed to free another 550 Palestinians in two months.
In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters" and "holy warriors," unusual language for the Palestinian leader who until a few months ago had hitched his political future to peace negotiations with Israel.
Those efforts have broken down because the gaps between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were too wide. On Tuesday, Abbas told senior PLO officials in Ramallah he is considering holding presidential and legislative elections in January or February and would discuss the possibility when he meets with Mashaal, participants at the gathering said.
No date has been set, but Hamas and PLO officials said the meeting could take place in coming days.
In Cairo, Mashaal said the swap created a good atmosphere for Palestinian reconciliation talks and that he has spoken to Abbas about forging a joined strategy.
In both Gaza and the West Bank, joy marked the day.
In Gaza City, Azhar Abu Jawad, 30, celebrated the return of a brother who was sentenced to life for killing an Israeli in 1992. She said she last saw him eight years ago, before Israel banned visits by Gazans. "My happiness is indescribable," she said. "We'll get him a bride and everything. I just spoke to him. He's so happy. This is a reminder God doesn't forget anyone."
Among those arriving in Gaza were prisoners who grew up in the West Bank but were being expelled to Gaza. Israel's security chiefs have said they wanted to keep prisoners still deemed dangerous away from the West Bank, which has relatively open borders with Israel. Gaza is tightly sealed by an Israeli border fence.
Sobhia Jundiya of the West Bank town of Bethlehem traveled to Egypt with her husband to catch a brief glimpse of their 28-year-old son, Ibrahim, who was being released after 10 years. He had been sentenced to multiple life terms for an attack that killed 12 and wounded 50.
"It's better he be in Gaza even if I can't see him. It's better than prison in Israel," she said.
"I hope to see him for a few minutes," she said, beginning to cry. "This is the day I have been dreaming of for 10 years. I haven't touched his hand in 10 years."
In the end, the Jundiyas were unable to see him because relatives were not given access to the prisoners' convoy during its brief swing through Egypt. The couple will try to go to Gaza, but it's difficult for West Bankers to obtain such permission from Israel or Egypt.
Israel prevents most movement between the West Bank and Gaza.
In the West Bank, Fakhri Barghouti was carried on the shoulders of one man and was surrounded by chanting relatives. Sentenced to life for killing an Israeli, Barghouti, 57, had spent 34 years in prison, making him one of the longest-serving inmates.
"There will be no happiness as long as our brothers are still in jail," he said. "I can't feel good when I'm leaving my brothers behind."
His son, Shadi, is serving a 27-year sentence for involvement in an armed group. At one point, he shared a cell with his father.
___Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Rafah, Egypt.