Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement said they have agreed through Egyptian mediation on the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive in the Gaza Strip for more than five years, in exchange for hundreds of prisoners in Israeli jails.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined the preliminary agreement at an emergency cabinet meeting called in Jerusalem late today, where he asked for final government approval. Negotiators signed the draft deal in Cairo, he said.
“I believe we have reached the best agreement possible at this point in time, a time of storms throughout the Middle East,” Netanyahu said in comments to the cabinet broadcast on Channel 2 television.
Shalit was seized by Hamas militants in an attack on an Israeli army post on the border with the Gaza Strip in June 2006. Egypt and Germany have been trying for years to broker a exchange in which Shalit would be freed in return for the release of Palestinian security prisoners from Israeli jails.
The deal to free Shalit, 25, comes as the international community has renewed attempts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Shalit’s release may ease those efforts. Hamas, which controls Gaza, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
“We fully confirm that an agreement on Shalit’s deal was reached with Israel and the implementation will be in the coming few days after finishing all other arrangements,” said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas armed wing known as the Izzedein al-Qassam Brigades, speaking in a telephone interview from Gaza.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City came out into the streets to exchange candies after the deal was announced on Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa Television. Militants carrying green Hamas flags fired sub-machine guns in the air to celebrate after the station reported about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will be released.
In Jerusalem, Noam and Aviva Shalit, the soldier’s parents, were shown on television embracing relatives and friends inside a tent outside Netanyahu’s residence where they have maintained a vigil during his captivity.
The only contact between Shalit, who holds Israeli and French citizenship, and the outside world during his captivity has been three letters, an audio tape and a DVD that Israel received in October 2009 in return for releasing 20 female Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its leaders say they will renounce violence when Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967 and allows Palestinians to return to areas they left as result of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Israel has agreed to prisoner exchanges in the past. In July 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners in return for the bodies of two soldiers captured by the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement two years earlier in a cross-border raid by the group that sparked a 33-day war between the two sides.
In a 2004 prisoner swap with Hezbollah, Israel exchanged about 400 Palestinian detainees and the bodies of 59 Lebanese for one Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.
The Middle East Quartet, comprised of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, is now trying to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Quartet envoys on Oct. 9 proposed a meeting Oct. 23 in Jordan to discuss terms for renewed talks.
Negotiations broke down last year after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to extend on 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement construction that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said is a precondition for talks to resume.
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