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'Welcome back': Joy in West Bank as freed prisoners return

Rouba Assi is carried by supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah after her release from an Israeli prison as part of an exchange for hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip
— Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

A red keffiyeh scarf around her neck and a beaming smile on her face, Rouba Assi fell into her friends' arms after being freed from an Israeli prison.

"I missed you so much," said the 23-year-old activist, as the crowd around her hoisted her to their shoulders, chanting "Welcome back! Welcome back!"

Her parents, still in visible disbelief at her release after six months in an Israeli jail, could not take their eyes off her.

In the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday night, as every evening since Friday, crowds gathered to welcome home the latest group of Palestinians freed under a prisoner-hostage exchange deal struck between Israel and Hamas that paused fighting in the Gaza Strip.

And on Tuesday, like every other night, the arrival of the white bus carrying the freed prisoners was greeted with an explosion of joy in the Palestinian territory.

"I'm really happy. I feel like I'm in a movie," said Mohammad, a young man from Hebron, who declined to give his last name.

"It's crazy. The Palestinian prisoners are back in Palestine."

- Victory signs -

A newly released Palestinian prisoner following the release of prisoners from Israeli jails

Like many others, Mohammad had come to follow the bus bringing Palestinian detainees released by Israel in return for some of the roughly 240 hostages taken by Hamas during its bloody cross-border raids on October 7.

The attack, the worst in Israel's history, left around 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians, according to Israeli officials.

In response, Israel launched a punishing air and ground campaign against the militant group in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-run government says the offensive has killed more than 15,000 people, also mostly civilians.

But the truce facilitating the prisoner-hostage exchanges has largely silenced the guns on both sides for six days now.

It is set to remain in effect until at least Thursday morning, and could be extended further.

Each night since Friday, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have freed around a dozen hostages, all women and children, with Israel releasing three times as many prisoners -- women or males under the age of 19.

Mohammad filmed with his phone as a group of smiling young women just freed from prison saluted the crowd with a "V" for victory sign and danced in front of the bus.

Men wave the Hamas flag as a crowd in the occupied West Bank surrounds a Red Cross bus carrying Palestinians released from Israeli prisons

Some people sported the colours of various Palestinian movements -- among them the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas -- but the green flag of Hamas was the most popular.

"We are Mohammed Deif's people!" the crowd chanted at one point, referring to the elusive leader of Hamas's armed wing, one of the alleged masterminds of the October 7 attacks.

To those in the crowd -- albeit smaller than previous nights -- forcing Israel to free 180 Palestinians so far constitutes a major victory, but the Palestinian Prisoners' Club advocacy group notes that roughly 3,300 others have been arrested since October 7.

There are more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

- Fires and barricades -

According to health officials in the West Bank, a young Palestinian was killed overnight on Monday as the prisoner bus passed through Beitunia, an industrial town between Israel's Ofer prison and Ramallah.

Each evening, crowds of young people have set up barricades and burned garbage and tyres in front of Israeli soldiers.

Mourners attend the funeral of Yassin al-Asmar, killed in clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank town of Beitunia

The army said that the soldiers, wanting to "prevent any riots", opened fire after "assailants hurled explosive devices and Molotov cocktails at the forces".

The fires and barricades were back in Beitunia on Tuesday night, and some young people -- including two wearing headbands associated with the armed wing of Hamas -- threw stones towards Israeli soldiers who had entered the small town.

On a hill overlooking Ofer prison, dozens of people waited for hours to watch the release, some warming themselves near fires. Others in cars and on motorcycles cruised around nearby housing blocks.

All the while, the waiting Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers stationed around the prison and along the route kept a wary eye on each other as an Israeli drone whirred overhead.