Palestinians commemorate the Day of the Political Prisoner on 17 April, as statistics reveal one in five Palestinians have been imprisoned at some point by Israel throughout the 40 years of Israeli occupation.
To Palestinians, the 10,000 people currently in Israeli jails are political prisoners held illegally by the occupation.
This year's rally came as negotiations continued for a prisoner swap in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked fighters in June.
Shalit's captors have demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinians, including men convicted for the murders of Israelis.
Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister spoke to the gathering crowd and assured them that the list of prisoners demanded from Israel in return for Shalit includes "all our people from all the factions".
Haniya said the list includes Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader from Fatah. But Israel has said it will not free Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life terms for his role in shooting attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Since the kidnapping of Shalit, Israel has stepped up its detention campaigns, imprisoning over 3500 Palestinians, including 41 elected parliamentarians. Now that a prisoner swap deal is being negotiated, families of these prisoners are hoping their loved ones' freedom is nearing.
In Gaza, 26 men have been exiled from Bethlehem since 2002 and they've already been told their situation will not be addressed in the swap deal.
In 2002, Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached a controversial deal whereby 26 Palestinians would be exiled to Gaza and 13 others to a number of European countries.
They were involved in the 41-day siege of Bethlehem's Church of Nativity, where they sought refuge during an Israeli invasion of the Palestinian town.
They are not behind bars but their life is under restrictions very similar to those who are imprisoned. They cannot go home, their family visitation permits are issued sparingly, if at all and the prospect of an end to their exile is still unclear.
Every Monday, families of the 10,000 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel stage sit-ins at Red Cross offices in their cities to demand freedom for their loved ones.
Among those still held by Israel are almost 400 children and 120 women. Another 900 are called administrative detainees, imprisoned without facing charges or a trial date.
Yaseen Al-Hreimi, former political prisoner and the father of a current prisoner, is one of 26 Palestinians who were exiled to the Gaza Strip in 2002.
"Gaza is just a bit bigger than prison; it's like a detention camp. We're exiled and forgotten with the sea to the west, the borders to the east, Egypt to the south and Israel to the north.
|Exile and imprisonment of family members has |
strained Palestinian families [Reuters]
Yaseen has resigned himself to a long exile. But talks of a prisoner swap with Israel have raised his hopes that his son Jalal will soon be freed and reunited with his children.
"Frankly if I had to choose, I would stay in Gaza and let them free my son."
In 2003, Yaseen's forced exile was compounded by grief over his 17 year-old son, Walid, who died in Gaza after Israel denied him permission to return to the West Bank for life-saving kidney treatment.
In the end Israeli authorities permitted Walid's body to be buried in Bethlehem but Yaseen was not allowed to leave Gaza.
Palestinian families have been told by authorities to be patient for the release of their loved ones. For those whose relatives have been in Israeli prisons for many years without release, this is more easily said than done.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies Last Mod: 17 Nisan 2007, 21:18