Dozens of Palestinians handed out sweets and waved yellow Hezbollah flags to celebrate what they saw as a major victory in Israel’s return of five Lebanese prisoners.
The swap is expected to strengthen the hand of Gaza’s ruling Hamas, which has held an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, for the past two years. Hamas demands the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for him.
Those marching in Gaza headed toward the home of a former cellmate of Samir Kantar, the Lebanese militant convicted of a notorious attack in Israel in 1979.
Kantar and four other prisoners crossed into a buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel this afternoon, part of a the swap that also involved the return of the two dead Israeli soldiers to the Jewish state.
The Lebanese were driven in vehicles to the buffer zone, and were to cross by foot into Lebanon proper. Army crews removed barricades at the border to let the cars in.
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, previously visited the former Kantar cellmate, Jaber Wishah.
Wishah’s 72-year-old mother, Handoumeh, informally “adopted” Kantar, visiting him regularly while her son was in jail.
“If only I could go to Lebanon and kiss Samir’s forehead,” said Handoumeh, surrounded by well wishers at her home in central Gaza. Behind her were two large pictures of her son and Kantar.
The prisoner swap appears to have strengthened the demands of Hamas, which says that in exchange for Shalit, Israel must release Palestinians who have killed Israelis.
“Israel must pay the price, and learn to pay the price for an exchange,” said Haniyeh. “There is a captive Israeli soldier. Thousands of our sons are in prison. We want to end this as quickly, even faster than the Israelis, but let them meet our demands.”
The prisoner swap also appears to have boosted Hezbollah’s already strong popularity among Palestinians, who see the Lebanese group’s tough-talking leader Hassan Nasrallah as a man who threatens Israel and keeps his promises.
In Gaza, residents listened to radios broadcasting a live feed from Hezbollah’s al-Manar television in Lebanon. Televisions in coffee shops stayed on Arab news channels and a local souvenir shop was decked out in Hezbollah and Lebanese flags.