More than 200,000 people gathered in Gaza City Tuesday for a rally organized by the terrorist group Hamas to celebrate the release of nearly 500 Palestinian terrorists following a prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
The crowd chanted "the people want a new Gilad," in reference to the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who returned home in "reasonable health" Tuesday after being held by Hamas in solitary confinement for five years.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh welcomed close to 300 Palestinian prisoners back into the Gaza Strip, along with other leading Hamas officials. Gaza declared a national holiday. Schools were closed and the streets were decorated with the green flags of Hamas. "The rest of the prisoners must be released because if they are not released in a normal way they will be released in other ways," senior Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook said.
More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners ultimately will be released as part of the deal.
Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, called the occasion "truly epic" in a video statement and press release Tuesday. "This was the first time in more than 50 prisoner exchanges since 1948 that on the Israeli soldier is taken prisoner during combat operation in a military outpost on the lands occupied in 1948," the release said.
"As a result we say to the occupiers that their leadership has destined you to another episode of rejecting the release of prisoners who have spent decades in jail and those who suffer serious illness."
In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand, praising the released prisoners as "freedom fighters." He claimed "there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes."
Abbas added, "Soon, we will see Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, whom we wish a full recovery." Barghouti and Saadat are two of four high-ranking terrorist operatives whom Israel refused to release in the Schalit deal, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center released Tuesday. Abbas also joined the crowd in shouts of "with spirit and blood we will redeem Palestine."
The Lebanese terrorist organization Hizballah praised Hamas on its website, saying it "proved for another time that negotiations with the Israeli enemy won't bear fruit and that what was taken by force can only be regained by force."