Freed Prisoners Arrive In Gaza Strip

It's been a day of celebration in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That's after 477 Palestinian prisoners were released in the first phase of the exchange that also freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour in the West Bank. It's been a day of celebration there and in the Gaza Strip. That's after 477 Palestinian prisoners were released in the first phase of an exchange that also freed Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. In a moment, we'll talk about the politics of that exchange with Israel's ambassador to the U.S.

But first, NPR's Peter Kenyon was in the West Bank city of Ramallah this morning when busloads of freed prisoners arrived.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In one corner in the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, officials sat on a small stage and tried to rally the crowd. But the speeches were largely drowned out by the cries and tears of families reuniting after years, in some cases, decades apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KENYON: A mother collapsed into the arms of her son, one of those released today, as other relatives crowded around. Nearby, Fakri Barghouti tasted freedom after 34 years in jail. He was carried on the shoulders of relatives who believed that his crimes, including the killing of a Jewish settler 35 years ago, were acts of resistance to an illegal occupation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KENYON: Outside the compound, 12-year-old Batoul Abu Eid hugged her newly released father, something that she hasn't been able to do since she was two.

BATOUL ABU EID: (Through interpreter) I feel like I can live again. I'm extremely happy to be in my dad's lap.

KENYON: Her father, Salman Abu Eid, who was an active member of Hamas' military wing before spending the last 10 years in jail, called on all Palestinian factions to unite behind an effort to free more than 5,000 other inmates still incarcerated in Israel.

SALMAN ABU EID: (Through translator) I call upon the whole world to see the cases of the prisoners.

KENYON: Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath says there may soon be high-level talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. As the Palestinians work on reconciliation, he hopes Israel will give Hamas-ruled Gaza some room to breathe.

NABIL SHAATH: Let they at least start ending the siege of Gaza, which they claim was done because of Shalit.

KENYON: On a day when resistance was the dominant theme, a few voices bucked the trend. One belonged to Jamal Tawil whose daughter remains a prisoner of Israel.

JAMAL TAWIL: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: People need to realize, he said, that we don't need kidnappings to bring back our prisoners. We need talks and pressure on Israel from good people around the world to bring our people home.

But at least on this day, many agreed with Fakri Barghouti's sister-in-law, Hanan. She sat in the peace and quiet of the olive groves of El-Kobar village and, with chilling calm, said that Hamas has got it right.

HANAN BARGHOUTI: (Through translator) The only strategy left for the Palestinians is to kidnap more soldiers. I ask every Palestinian to kidnap a soldier.

KENYON: Those still wondering if this prisoner exchange can somehow revive peace talks hope Palestinians don't heed Barghouti's call.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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