Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the second and final phase of a swap with Gaza Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.
Under the Egypt-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange a total of 1,027 prisoners for Sergent Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006. Schalit returned home in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners.
Sunday's release of 550 prisoners completed the swap, the most lopsided in Israel's history.
The release on Sunday night was not infused with the same drama as the first phase, since the most significant players in the trade had already been freed.
The October 18 return of Schalit, who appeared pale and thin but otherwise healthy, was the first public sighting of him since his capture, and the plight of the young man had captured Israel's attention for years.
The prisoners freed in the first round included dozens of militants serving life sentences for involvement in bus bombings and other deadly attacks on Israeli civilians that killed hundreds. Their release set off celebrations in the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas' Gaza stronghold.
The release took place quietly under the cover of darkness, as most of the prisoners descended from buses and made their way into the West Bank and Gaza.
In Gaza, hundreds of well-wishers greeted the freed prisoners by waving Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the air. "I am so glad that I am back, this is a real victory," said released prisoner Kamal Madheem, 40.
On Sunday Israel's Supreme Court rejected a last-minute appeal by an Israeli group representing families of victims of Palestinian violence to block the release. The group argued that lopsided swaps encourage Palestinians to carry out more attacks and abductions.
"We managed to get 20 per cent of our prisoners released from Israeli jails in exchange for one soldier," Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said in Gaza.
"We are going to continue our efforts to get all prisoners released," he said.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners to be freed here yesterday. Prison officials said most were serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza.
More than 500 were sent to the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas' rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them were believed to be linked to Abbas' Fatah movement. Israel is interested in bolstering Abbas at a time when Islamic groups like Hamas are gaining in power throughout the Middle East. Hamas enjoyed a huge boost of popularity following the October release.