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Mass rallies celebrate freed Palestinians

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Tens of thousands of flag-waving Palestinians celebrated the homecoming Tuesday of hundreds of prisoners swapped for an Israeli soldier, as political leaders jockeyed for credit for the most significant prisoner release by Israel in nearly three decades.

In downtown Gaza City, Hamas organized a homecoming celebration that turned into a show of strength by the Islamic militant group, which seized control of Gaza from its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, more than four years ago. Tens of thousands crammed into a sandy lot, where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit's capture in a June 2006 at an army base near the Gaza border. Thousands hoisted green Hamas flags.

A majority of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday, in exchange for Schalit, 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." Schalit was captured more than five years ago by Hamas-allied militants, and Gaza's Hamas rulers negotiated the swap, with Egyptian mediation.

More than 300 of the prisoners arrived in Gaza, the rest in the West Bank. Mass celebration rallies were under way in both of the Palestinian territories.

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One of the released Hamas leaders, Yehiye Sinwar, called on the group's military wing to kidnap more Israeli soldiers in order to free the remaining prisoners in Israeli jails. Several thousand are still held by Israel on a range of security offenses.

"We shall spare no efforts to liberate the rest of our brothers and sisters," Sinwar told Hamas' al-Aqsa TV. "We urge the Al Qassam Brigades (the Hamas military wing) to kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars," said Sinwar, one of the founders of the Hamas military wing. He had had been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

Many in the crowd were overcome with joy.

Azhar Abu Jawad, 30, celebrated the return of a brother who had been 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."

A Palestinian prisoner is held aloft by relatives after arriving in Mukata following his release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

In Ramallah, Abbas addressed a crowd of thousands, included 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 even raised clasped hands in a show of victory.

Still, Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap. Over years of negotiating with Israel, he has only been able to bring about the release of those who had little time left on their sentences. Tuesday's swap, with many "lifers" among the released prisoners, is the most significant since Israel released hundreds of Palestinians in 1985.

In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters" and suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit.

"I am revealing to you ... that there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes," Abbas said.

His comments marked the first time he referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment.

Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of relatives of prisoners had waited at a West Bank checkpoint for a first glimpse at their loved ones. However, the buses carrying the prisoners were instead driven directly to Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank.

Clashes erupted between about 200 young Palestinians at the checkpoint and Israeli soldiers several hundred yards away, after the families were told they had waited in the wrong place. Israeli troops fired tear gas and Palestinians threw stones for about half an hour. Some of the young men climbed atop a separation fence near the checkpoint and draped it with flags of Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement.

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