Hamas report: Hamas releases Israeli soldier in prisoner swap


Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers released captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Tuesday in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a Hamas military source said, in a deal ending a saga that has gripped Israel for five years.

The source said Shalit, 25, was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where he was handed over to Egyptian officials, who were due to take him to Israel’s nearby Vineyard of Peace border crossing.

There was no immediate confirmation from Israel or Egypt.

In a carefully choreographed swap, Israel was due to release 477 Palestinian prisoners during the day, some of whom were put on buses ready for transfer to Gaza, which is run by Hamas. Other were set to be freed in the occupied West Bank.

Israel will release a further 550 prisoners in a second stage of the Egyptian-brokered agreement, expected in about two months.

“This is the greatest joy for the Palestinian people,” said Azzia al-Qawasmeh, awaiting at a West Bank checkpoint for her son Amer, who she said had been in prison for 24 years.

Fire-crackers, fluttering flags and honking car horns marked an early start to celebrations in the city of Gaza, where young men converged on a central square for a mass rally to await speeches by prominent prisoners and Hamas leaders.

The mood in Israel was also one of elation.

Shalit has been popularly portrayed as “everyone’s son” and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the thousand-for-one deal, although many of the prisoners going free were convicted of deadly attacks.

“I am happy this day has come. Gilad will soon return to you,” an official statement quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling Shalit’s parents at an airbase in central Israel, where the soldier will be flown later.

For Palestinians, it was a time to celebrate what Hamas hailed as a victory, and a heroes’ welcome awaited the released prisoners. Palestinians see brethren jailed by Israel as prisoners of war in a struggle for statehood.

HIGH PRICE

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.

Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants 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.

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.

As part of the deal, Hamas agreed with an Israeli demand that 40 of those freed on Tuesday should be sent into exile, with Turkey, Syria and Qatar agreeing to take in the Palestinians.

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, is seeking U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in the absence of negotiations which collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichai, Ronen Zvulun, Ari Rabinovitch, Nidal al-Mughrabi Douglas Hamilton, Mohammed Salem and Tom Perry; Writing by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Crispian Balmer)

Report: Shalit swap to get underway Tuesday


Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be freed from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip sometime next week in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

The swap is expected to take place on Egyptian territory at locations somewhere in the Sinai Desert, as yet undisclosed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has facilitated previous swaps, has offered its services as a neutral intermediary and is discussing this with Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, a spokesman in Geneva said.

The timing and choreography of the exchange have not been made public. But the approximate mechanics can be sketched from details gleaned from Palestinian and Israeli sources.

The handover will begin with carefully timed, simultaneous moves somewhere in Egypt. But Shalit and the men and women for whom he is being traded are not likely to even come close to seeing each other.

The deal, over three years in the making and a casualty of at least two breakdowns, was finally brokered last week with Egyptian mediation between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

It was signed and announced by both on Tuesday evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday telephoned Egypt’s military council chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to thank him on behalf of all Israelis for Cairo’s “successful intensive efforts.”

Israeli law, which stipulates a 48-hour period for any citizen to formally oppose the release of any prisoner, plus this week’s Jewish religious holiday, mean it is likely to be Tuesday at the earliest before the operation can take place.

Shalit is 25 and has been the focus of an emotional campaign since soon after his capture in June 2006. He was last seen, looking pale and thin, in a 2009 video shot by his captors, and he is sure to get a hero’s welcome in Israel.

The Palestinian side is also preparing to celebrate the release of 450 men and 27 women, including prison veterans held in Israeli jails for 30 years.

Some will be greeted at home. Others will be exiled to third countries, as yet unnamed, without stopping on Palestinian soil.

One member of a Gaza militant faction who is involved in arrangements to receive prisoners set to return to the enclave forecast the handover for Tuesday “if all goes smoothly.”

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip from 1967 to 2005, when it withdrew settlers and troops. Control of the enclave was seized in 2007 by Hamas militants who drove out the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah, with a pledge never to recognize Israel and to keep fighting “the Zionist entity.”

Somewhere in Gaza is the secret cell where Shalit, abducted in a raid by Hamas and allied gunmen who tunneled under the front line, has been held for years, without visitors, to extract the maximum concessions from Israel in a prisoner swap.

It is expected that Shalit will be taken across Gaza’s southwestern border into Egyptian territory while groups of Palestinian prisoners are transferred from Israeli jails to the Egyptian border near Eilat, on the edge of the Sinai Desert.

Former enemies Egypt and Israel have been at peace since 1979, so there is no political obstacle blocking cooperation between their security forces to facilitate the swap.

Shalit is likely to be flown to Israel by military aircraft. The Palestinians will have further to travel, possibly by bus and plane through Egypt and on to a variety of destinations.

Of the 450 Palestinian men and 27 women to be freed in this first phase of the exchange, out of a total of 1,000 men set for release in the coming months, 111 will go home to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and 130 will go home to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Six Arab-Israeli prisoners will be allowed to return to their homes in Israel. The rest—203 men and two of the 27 women prisoners—will be exiled to unnamed third countries, probably to join the Palestinian diaspora.

Israel is expected to publish the list of Palestinian names agreed with Hamas on Sunday morning. It will not include a few of the most prominent activists jailed for violent attacks on Israelis, but 310 men serving life terms will be freed, including one man aged 79.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Shalit family to PM: Your refusal to free Gilad signs his death sentence


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to strike a deal that would secure the release of Gilad Shalit is equivalent to signing the abducted Israeli soldier’s death sentence, a missive from the Shalit family said on Thursday.

Writing in an open letter to Netanyahu on Thursday, Zvi Shalit, Gilad’s grandfather severely criticized what he considered the premier’s inaction in face the IDF soldier’s captivity, saying that “a year ago a deal to secure Gilad’s release was all but signed but you thwarted it in a last-minute decision.”

“Your refusal then and today to comply with the request of former defense officials to free Gilad at the said price is tantamount to Gilad’s death sentence,” Zvi Shalit said, adding: “My grandson was a healthy young man when he was taken at nineteen. If he dies in Gaza, it will be a long and excruciating death.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Shalits reveal content of 2006 letter from Gilad


The family of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit has allowed public access to a letter he wrote just months after being taken captive by Palestinian militants in 2006.

The letter was handed over to Israel by Egyptian mediators in October 2006, four months after Shalit was seized in a cross-border raid.

Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Jewish Agency events mark Shalit birthday


Events marking the 23rd birthday of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be held around the United States on Friday.

The Jewish Agency for Israel is organizing about a dozen ceremonies to honor the soldier, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid at the Gaza-Israel border more than three years ago. He is believed to be alive and in captivity in Gaza. Shalit’s birthday is Aug. 28.

In Columbus, Ohio organizers will grant Shalit honorary citizenship. In San Francisco, a documentary on Shalit will be screened at the Jewish film festival. In Miami, children will release 1,000 balloons symbolizing the hope that he will be released soon.

“Participants at the events will be asked to sign post cards to the Red Cross asking that Shalit receive the full rights of an abducted soldier under international law and that the Red Cross work for the soldier’s release,” the Jewish Agency said in a news release on Monday.

In Israel, activists on behalf of Shalit marked his upcoming birthday by demonstrating Tuesday in front of two prisons in which Palestinians are incarcerated, disrupting family visits. Demonstrators have called on the Israeli government to withhold visitors to Hamas prisoners until Hamas allows the Red Cross to meet with Shalit.

G8 calls for release of Gilad Shalit


The Group of Eight leading industrialized nations called on Thursday for the immediately release of Gilad Shalit, after Egyptian-brokered talks to secure the kidnapped Israeli soldier’s release had come to a standstill.

The G8, meeting in Italy, also called for the immediate opening of the Gaza Strip’s border crossings to allow the entry of humanitarian aid, goods and people into the Hamas-ruled territory. The nations added that this move must not compromise Israel’s safety. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.