Banners decorate buildings as Palestinians prepare a field in Gaza City where celebrations will be held
Banners decorate buildings as Palestinians prepare a field in Gaza City where celebrations will be held to welcome prisoners released from Israeli prisons. © Alessio Romenzi - AFP
Banners decorate buildings as Palestinians prepare a field in Gaza City where celebrations will be held
Adel Zaanoun, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

In Gaza, Palestinians await their freed 'heros'

Raiqa just turned 100, but her age is belied by the energy with which she is decorating her Gaza home for her son who will be freed by Israel on Tuesday after 30 years in jail.

Selim al-Kayyali will return to his family home courtesy of an unprecedented prisoner exchange deal under which Israel has agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian detainees in return for captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

Tuesday's operation will see Israel freeing 477 prisoners, 297 of whom will be sent to Gaza. But only 133 of them are going 'home' -- with the rest being exiled there from their homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

With just hours to go before the prisoners' return, homes and streets across Gaza were being carefully prepared.

A giant banner featuring a picture of Kayyali, a Fatah leader who was imprisoned in 1983, hangs at the front of the house, emblazoned with the words: "Welcome to the heroic leader."

"The best moment in my life will be seeing my mother take my brother in her arms," says Hassan, one of the prisoner's siblings.

"We haven't seen him since 1996 because we're not allowed to visit him in prison. He'll finally see his granddaughter, the child of his only daughter Duaa who is now 29."

In the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Hajj Ibrahim is smiling as he receives relatives and delegations dispatched by the factions to congratulate him on the release of his son, Yehia Sinwar.

Sinwar is one of the most senior Hamas leaders who will be released in the first group of Palestinians being freed on Tuesday. A second group of 550 detainees will be released within two months.

Hajj Ibrahim acknowledges some anxiety over the prospect of "deception or a breach by the Israelis" of the exchange deal.

But must people were joyful and optimistic.

Shortly after the deal was announced, thousands rallied to celebrate and a similar party was planned for Tuesday.

Gaza's main streets have been decked out with flags of the different factions, and many pictures of the prisoners were plastered to walls across the territory.

In the Jabaliya refugee camp, Mohammed Zaqut's home resembles a shrine, covered with dozens of pictures of the man who was sentenced to life in prison for killing two Israelis.

"We're paralysed with happiness and joy," his eldest son Rami says. "We stood there silent, incredulous for ages when we first heard."

"We had grown tired of promises. It seemed as though the prisoners would never be freed except by force."

On an alley leading out to the beach, youths have put up an enormous photograph of Ahmed Abu Hassira, an Islamic Jihad leader who spent 30 years in Israeli prisons, and his cousin Mohammed Abu Hassira, a Hamas member.

Among those waiting for the pair to return is Nahed Swafiri from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing.

He was arrested on the same day as Mohammed Abu Hassira, and freed two months ago after 18 years in prison.

Swafiri said those slated for release were likely to "be anxious until they arrive in Gaza because they have no confidence in Israel.

"We won't be completely happy until the prisons are empty," he adds.

Abdel Fattah Nazal, 82, has come to Gaza from his home in the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya to welcome his son Nasser, an Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades member.

His son, who has been in prison since 2001, is one of the 164 Palestinians who are being exiled to Gaza from homes in the West Bank or east Jerusalem.

But the terms of his release are irrelevant, his father says, declaring himself to be thrilled "because Nasser will be leaving behind death for life."

Nasser's wife, Umm Salah, is also waiting impatiently for her husband.

"I can't describe my happiness at my husband being set free," she says, surrounded by her three daughters.

"I'll live with him here in Gaza, because this is part of our homeland, just like Qalqilya."

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