In a show of strength rarely displayed these days, masked and heavily armed militants from Hamas's armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, joined the hundreds of thousands of jubilant Palestinians who crowded into Gaza City's Al-Katiba Square to greet the arrival of nearly 300 newly freed prisoners.
The sight of so many fighters in plain view was a throwback to another much bloodier era, but it seemed that Hamas, the engineer of the most lopsided prisoner exchange in Israel's history, intended to drive home the message that the language of force had worked.
"It is a victory for the resistance, a victory for the Palestinian people," said Raida al-Uff, a 30-year-old Palestinian woman. "Despite the siege and the suffering, Palestinians can be happy, even if only for one reason."
On a stage bedecked with flags and garlands, a giant poster depicted the capture of an Israeli soldier – a reminder, as if it was needed, that it was the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the Jewish soldier taken in a cross-border raid by Gaza militants more than five years ago, that had won more than 1,000 Palestinians their liberty. "We want another Shalit!" chanted the crowd, a cry that will chill many Israelis who have argued that the freedom of one Israeli soldier commanded much too high a cost, and would encourage Palestinians to attempt to repeat the exercise.
Israel released a first tranche of 477 prisoners, with the remaining 550 to be set free in two months. Indeed, many of those returning to Gaza yesterday, as well as scores more deportees arriving back in the West Bank, were men with blood on their hands, some of them responsible for the most notorious attacks on Israeli soil in the past decade. Those deemed by Israel to be too dangerous to send to the West Bank or East Jerusalem were deported to Gaza, which is under Israeli blockade, and inaccessible to most Palestinians.
But all returned to a hero's welcome. In some cases, families had waited more than 30 years for their relatives' freedom. As newly released prisoners arrived at the Rafah border crossing in the morning, some dropped to the ground to kiss the soil before they were reunited with loved ones. Raed Abu Lebdeh, embracing his weeping 13-year-old daughter for the first time since his arrest 13 years ago, said it was a moment of "indescribable joy".
They then boarded buses to Gaza City, where a crowd of 100,000 or more lined the route of the convoy, led by the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a saloon car. As the buses inched through the throng near the square, cheers went up from the crowd. Mr Haniyeh told his people that the capture of the Israeli soldier was instrumental in winning freedom for hundreds of Palestinians. "Some described Shalit's captivity as a worthless adventure but today they are proven wrong," he said.
In Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas also addressed vast crowds and sought to make a rare display of unity by sharing the podium with three Hamas leaders from the West Bank.
"Palestinians have a feeling of victory, even if not complete victory," said Atef Masad, 46, referring to the 5,000 or more Palestinian prisoners still held in Israel. "It is something we have taken from Israel by force. It is something we can't get through negotiations."
Meanwhile, Zahra Abu Jalali was patiently waiting in the crowd to see her brother, Hamad, 56, who served 22 years in jail. His family has lost no time in finding him a wife – a 20-year-old relative. According to Hamad's sister, his future wife said: "He sacrificed his life, now I will sacrifice mine."Reuse content