Israel, Hamas swap deal to see thousands set free

AFP, JERUSALEM

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 - Page 1

Israel was yesterday waiting to hear when captive soldier Gilad Shalit would return home, a day after it inked a deal with Hamas that will see 1,000 Palestinian prisoners freed.

Announcing the deal late on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Shalit would be home within “days,” but officials have so far given no specifics about how and when the deal will be implemented.

“We have concluded arduous negotiations with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. He will be coming home in the next few days,” Netanyahu said in a live address.

If the accord is implemented, it will end an ordeal that has lasted more than five years for the young soldier, who has become a national icon in Israel since his capture by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.

It will also be a major political coup for Gaza’s Hamas rulers, particularly vis-a-vis the Ramallah-based leadership of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

The Israeli government formally approved the deal early yesterday.

The vote passed by 26-3, with ultra-nationalist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman voting against it, alongside two other nationalist ministers, despite the support of Israel’s top military and defense officials.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal confirmed the deal in an address from Damascus.

“Hamas and Israel have reached an agreement under which 1,027 Palestinians, of whom 27 are women, will be freed in two phases,” he said, with 450 prisoners to be released “in one week,” and another 550 “in two months.”

Late on Tuesday, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen said 450 prisoners would be released within the coming days, 131 of whom would be sent home to Gaza.

Another 163 prisoners from the West Bank would also be sent to the coastal territory, he said, while a group of 40 prisoners from the West Bank would be released abroad.

In Gaza, Hamas said “tens of thousands” of Palestinians had flooded streets to celebrate the expected release of the detainees.