Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit may be released as early as next week after Israel and Hamas reached agreement to end his five-year captivity in the Gaza Strip in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Shalit will be handed over to Egyptian officials on Oct. 17, said Abu Ataya, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip, a group said to be involved in the abduction. Israel will bus the first group of freed Palestinians to Egypt and they will then cross into the Gaza Strip, he said.
“There was a willingness for flexibility on both sides, perhaps from a sense of urgency,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “Hamas was very much in need of a boost and this is a return to political visibility.”
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 an exchange in which he would be freed in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Negotiations in the past stumbled over how many prisoners who had been involved in violent attacks would be freed and whether they would be allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza.
The deal to free Shalit, 25, comes as the U.S. attempts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, has refused to restart talks until Israel halts settlement building and is instead pursuing statehood recognition at the United Nations, a step that is popular in Gaza and the West Bank, and opposed by Israel and the U.S.
Israel’s Cabinet approved the deal in a 26-3 vote early today. Negotiators hammered out the swap through Egyptian mediation and signed a draft in Cairo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said Netanyahu’s decision to reach the agreement now will boost Hamas and is a slap to Abbas.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that Israel is trying to undermine Abu Mazen,” Abusada said, referring to Abbas by his popular nickname.
Hamas broke with Abbas’s Fatah faction in 2007 and seized control of Gaza. The group, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
The top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, said in Damascus that a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would be freed in two stages. Israel agreed to release 450 prisoners within a week and the rest within two months, he said.
“This is a national achievement for the whole Palestinian people,” Mashaal said at a televised news conference. “We all have sacrificed.”
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details haven’t been made public, said that those to be released include about 300 prisoners serving life terms, though senior Palestinian officials including Marwan Barghouti, Abdullah Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat will stay behind bars.
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. People carrying green Hamas flags fired guns in the air to celebrate.
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.
‘Victory for Terror’
“I bring a proposal to the government for a deal that will bring Gilad Shalit home alive and well,” Netanyahu said in comments to the Cabinet e-mailed by his office. “I believe we have reached the best agreement possible at this point in time when storms are sweeping the Middle East.”
Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister for infrastructure, attacked the agreement with Hamas, calling it a “huge victory for terror” that will provide Palestinians with “incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions,” the Associated Press reported.
“After Gilad returns home we will have to think through how we deal with abducted soldiers in a way that is appropriate to the harsh rules of the region we live in,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Army Radio. “This can’t become a methodical pressure tactic used against Israel. ”
The so-called Middle East Quartet, comprising the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia, is 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 Netanyahu declined to extend on 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement construction.
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.
Israel has agreed to prisoner exchanges in the past. In July 2008, it 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 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.
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