Joyful Gazans celebrate prisoner swap

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired guns in the air and blared their car horns on Tuesday to celebrate a prisoner swap deal between Israel and the enclave’s Islamist rulers, Hamas, which will exchange 1,000 Palestinians for Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.

Hailed by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in a speech from Damascus as a “national achievement,” the prisoner swap was the best news Gaza has had for years.

Israeli and Hamas leaders announced the signing of the Egyptian-brokered deal, clinched after many failed attempts in secret talks since Shalit was abducted by Hamas gunmen in the summer of 2006.

It is expected to begin in the coming days, and the names of those to be freed have yet to be published.

But Abdel-Karim Abu Attaya, 76, was already looked forward to a reunion with his son Mohammed, who has served 20 years in an Israeli jail for being a member of the Hamas armed wing and carrying out attacks against the Israeli occupation of Gaza, which ended in 2005.

“Happiness brought tears to my eyes,” he said, adding that he would see to it that his son soon had a wife.

“I am the happiest man. I congratulate the family of Gilad Shalit as well. I hope all Palestinian prisoners will be freed,” the father of eleven said.

Gunmen fired rifles and congratulations were issued from the loudspeakers of Gaza’s many mosques.

“We must continue in our struggle until all prisoners are freed,” said Abdallah Abu Huwaidy. Some 6,000 Palestinians are serving sentences in prisons in Israel, which Hamas refuses to recognize.

Thousands of Gaza residents from all political factions rallied across the narrow coastal enclave to celebrate news of the deal, which Hamas officials said would include prisoners of the various militant groups.

Abu Attaya, spokesman of the Popular Resistance Committees, whose fighters joined Hamas in the capture of Shalit, said militants would kidnap more Israeli soldiers until all Palestinian prisoners are freed.

“The coming weeks and month will witness more responses and more, similar operations. We will continue the same path to kidnap Zionist soldiers in order to clear all prisons,” the masked spokesman said, clutching an AK 47 assault rifle.

“Today the resistance talks,” an activist cried over the loudspeaker of one mosque. “Today the enemy submitted to our demands and that was just the start.”

Reporting by Nidal al-Mighrabi. Editing by Douglas Hamilton