Both Palestinians and Israelis celebrate prisoner swap

Story highlights

NEW: In Israeli soldier's hometown, residents wave flags, dance, cheer his return

NEW: In Gaza, thousands cheer the return of Palestinian prisoners

NEW: Some say the exchange will help the peace process

NEW: Others worry it will lead to more violence

Jerusalem CNN  — 

They hugged at the Rafah border crossing. Cheered in Gaza City. And in Mitzpe Hila, Israel, they gave a hero’s welcome for the young soldier who last saw his hometown five years ago.

The release of Israeli soldier Gildad Shalit in exchange for the eventual release of 1,027 Palestinians held by Israel unleashed a powerful wave of celebration among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

It also raised the ire of some Israelis, who worry the deal would lead to more violence.

In Mitzpe Hila, onlookers waved Israeli flags, danced, cheered and tossed white roses at a convoy carrying the young soldier home. He emerged from a white van and briefly acknowledged the crowd with a wave before uniformed officers hustled him away, apparently into his parents’ home.

At the Rafah crossing from Egypt to Gaza, masked Hamas gunmen accompanied buses filled with released prisoners to a terminal where they met with friends and relatives for emotional reunions before a mass celebration and parade in Gaza City.

Some of them chanted, “We want another Shalit,” CNN’s Matthew Chance reported.

Crowds of Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza, waving flags and banners to welcome the released prisoners home. They pressed up to buses carrying the prisoners to a rally in Gaza City, reaching out to touch the newly freed as they leaned out windows. People shouted, “With our blood and with our hearts we sacrifice for you prisoners.”

Ahmed Qawasmi was awaiting the release of his son Amer, who was arrested when he was 17 and had been in prison 24 years.

“I am very very happy for the release of my son Amer,” he said. “The celebrations and happiness won’t be complete until all Palestinian prisoners are free from Israeli prisons.”

Nabil Hamouz told CNN he was waiting for the release of his mother Hanan, who has served one year of a 2½-year sentence for trying to stab an Israeli soldier.

“I am very happy and can’t wait to hug my mother again,” he said, weeping.

Hamas official Hassan Youssef welcomed the release of some prisoners but said it was not enough.

“We are all shedding two tears: one tear for the release of all of our fighters, and a tear of pain for all of our brothers still in prison,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used strikingly similar language to describe his nation’s emotions at the release of Shalit.

“Today we are all united in joy and in pain. … This is also a hard day; even if the price had been smaller, it would still have been heavy,” he said.

While Israelis are solidly supportive of the deal, they are nearly split on the question of whether the release will harm Israeli security, according to a poll of 500 people conducted by the Dahaf Polling Institute for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who helped negotiate the deal, said it will help encourage democratic trends in Palestinian areas.

“It’s certainly an emotional day in my life,” he said.

But Arnold Roth, whose daughter died in the 2001 bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria, called the exchange “quite catastrophic.”

One of the prisoners released Tuesday was a woman who Roth said masterminded the bombing.

“What happened here is that under conditions of extortion, the government of Israel has done everything it needs to do to bring home a soldier,” he said. “But it’s emptied its prisons of security prisoners, terrorists, murderers, people who stood trial and who have the most unimaginable crimes on their records. So this is a horrible outcome.”

Of course, Palestinian officials don’t see it that way, and hope Tuesday’s scene will be repeated again and again until all of the estimated 5,000 Palestinians held by Israel are released.

Palestinian Prime Mister Mahmoud Abbas told cheering crowds they had “fought and sacrificed, and you will see the results of your struggle in an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

And he said more prisoners would be released.

“We have made an agreement with the Israeli government to release another group of prisoners, and we call on them to keep their promises,” he said.

CNN’s Kareem Khadder, Michal Zippori, Frederik Pleitgen, Peter Wilkinson and Zain Verjee contributed to this report.