Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, looking pale but cheerful, on Tuesday returned to Israel after five years of Hamas captivity, sparking the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners under a landmark swap deal.
“Gilad has returned home,” the Israeli army’s chief spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai told reporters at Kerem Shalom on Tuesday, describing his state of health as “good and satisfactory.”
Shortly after the announcement, the first of 477 Palestinian prisoners were being released to scenes of joy and celebration, with thousands of family members welcoming them with tears and embraces, an Al Arabiya correspondent said.
More than 200,000 people gathered in Gaza City for a mass rally to celebrate the return of prisoners freed under a swap deal with Israel, the Hamas movement said.
“More than 200,000 people have gathered now at the Katiba (in Gaza City) to participate in the main festival welcoming the prisoners,” one of the Hamas officials involved in organizing the welcome rally said.
Clashes, meanwhile, erupted between Palestinians and Israeli troops after Israel freed the prisoners through other border checkpoints other than those agreed on, Al Arabiya correspondent said.
Earlier on Tuesday, an Al Arabiya correspondent confirmed that Shalit has arrived at the Kerem Shalom border checkpoint and that he was being exposed to medical checkups.
"He talked to his family by the same cellular phone that he had when he was abducted," Al Arabiya correspondent Ziad Halabi said. Shalit will get a military promotion and he will be given life-pension, according to Al Arabiya.
Operation started early on Tuesday
Early at dawn, the first of hundreds of Palestinian inmates arrived at the Kerem Shalom Israeli army post which lies near the Israel-Gaza border and a bus carrying 16 Palestinian prisoners, to be freed within the swap deal, left East Jerusalem, Al Arabiya correspondent said.
The first phase of the exchange will end a saga that has gripped Israelis over the five years of Shalit’s captivity in Gaza.
A long and heavily guarded convoy left a prison in Israel’s southern Negev desert where the majority of inmates had been held. A small group of female prisoners departed from a second jail in the center of the country, according to Reuters.
The first prisoners freed from Ketziot prison had their hands and feet manacled, AFP reported.
More than 1,000 police officers were deployed along the convoy’s route, the radio said.
Officials from the Egyptian consulate in Israel were present as the convoys left and checked the identity of the prisoners freed under a deal concluded with Egypt’s involvement between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
Egypt’s government, meanwhile, was stepping up security at Cairo airport as it prepares to fly the freed Palestinian prisoners out of the country, an Egyptian intelligence source said on Tuesday.
Cairo airport raised security to emergency level as it prepared to transport 40 of the Palestinians to three countries as part of the swap deal, the intelligence source said.
The source said the prisoners were being sent to Turkey, Syria and Qatar and that their travel formalities were being overseen by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Green lights for the deal
The deal received a green light from Israel’s Supreme Court late on Monday after it rejected petitions from the public to prevent the mass release of prisoners, many serving life sentences for deadly attacks.
Emotions were running high inside Israel, where Shalit has enormous symbolic importance, with many overjoyed he is returning home, but others angered that so many Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis will be freed.
The deal between Israel and its bitter Hamas enemy, is the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for one person and, if all goes to plan, it will be the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier has been returned to the Jewish state alive.
Shalit, now 25, was abducted in June 2006 by Palestinian fighters who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He has since been held incommunicado and was last seen looking pale and thin in a 2009 video shot by his captors.
Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.
Second phase of swap
In the second phase of the swap, expected to take place in about two months, a further 550 Palestinian prisoners will be freed, officials said.
The repatriation of captured soldiers, alive or dead, has long been an emotionally charged issue for Israelis. Many have served in the military as conscripts and see it as sacrosanct. But they also feel stung by the high price they feel Israel is paying for Shalit.
“I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families, Reuters reported.
Among those being released are militants involved in planning and executing suicide bombings in restaurants and on buses during the years of the second Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000.
One woman, Amna Muna, was convicted of luring an Israeli teenager over the Internet onto Palestinian territory, where another Palestinian killed him. Another prisoner, Nasser Yateima, was convicted of masterminding a hotel bombing that killed 30 people celebrating the Passover holiday in 2002, The Associated Press reported.
Also among those being released were two Gaza militants convicted of playing minor roles in capturing Schalit. One filmed the operation on behalf of Hamas, and the second transported some of the militants who crossed into Israel, seized the soldier and killed two of his comrades.
Hamas prepared a heroes’ welcome in Gaza for 295 of those due to be sent to the coastal territory. Palestinians regard those jailed by Israel as prisoners of war in a struggle for statehood. Israel has some 6,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the point that the prisoners left their jails “a historic moment.”
Of the prisoners, 41 will be exiled to Turkey, Qatar and Syria.
Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the coastal territory after Shalit was seized and taken there.
The deal with Hamas, a group classified by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, is not expected to have a direct impact on efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, has been pursuing U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in the absence of negotiations with Israel that collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
Pressure to revive peace talks
The agreement comes as the U.S. and European Union push to revive talks that have been frozen for more than a year, a drive that became more urgent after Hamas’s rival Palestinian Authority began pressing for statehood recognition at the United Nations. Middle East envoy Tony Blair has said the swap may facilitate efforts to restart negotiations by creating a better atmosphere.
The swap, which is widely supported by Palestinians and Israelis, may increase the popularity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas at home. Shalit’s return also removes one of Israel’s key objections to dealing with Hamas.
“It gives us the opportunity to reshape policy towards Gaza, potentially at least to allow a better atmosphere for the resumption of a negotiation and maybe offers us the opportunity to get a broader-based negotiation,” Blair said in an Oct. 13 interview in Istanbul.
At the same time, the agreement may also undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been criticized by Israel and the U.S. for pursuing statehood recognition in the absence of a peace agreement.
According to a recent poll, 34 percent of respondents favored Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, compared with 59 percent supporting Abbas as the top Palestinian leader. The poll was released Sept. 19 and was conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
The agreement also comes as a popular uprising threatens the government in Syria, a main supporter of Hamas.
Abbas signed an agreement with Hamas in May aimed at healing a four-year breach between the two groups and uniting Gaza and the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas has refused to restart negotiations with Israel until Netanyahu halts settlement building.
The so-called Middle East Quartet, comprising the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia, is pressing for renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Quartet envoys plan to meet separately on Oct. 26 with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss ways to restart direct peace talks, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday.
An Egyptian security official said that an American-Israeli dual national held since June in Egypt on suspicions of espionage would also be released shortly after the swap. Ilan Grapel will be released by Egypt in return for about 70 Egyptian prisoners, most serving sentences in Israel on charges of smuggling or illegal entry, the official said, according to AP.
Israel has denied that Grapel, a law student who was traveling under his own name and whose connections to Israel were easily apparent on his Facebook page, was a spy.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the matter. He would not give a precise time for Grapel’s release, and Israeli officials would not comment.