Hamas and Israel have signed an agreement to exchange more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners for soldier Gilad Shalit, who will be returning home after five years in captivity.
The deal, which was signed late Oct. 11, is expected to get under way in the coming days, with the initial release of some 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. A second tranche of 550 prisoners will be released in two months. In return for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Hamas has said it will hand over a single man, Shalit, five years after he was captured just outside the Gaza Strip and dragged into confinement in the coastal enclave.
The deal represents the highest ratio of any such exchange in the last three decades and shows the astonishing lengths Israel will go to bring its soldiers home, Reuters reported. In the past three decades, Israel has released almost 7,000 various Arab prisoners in return for some 16 of its own nationals as well as the bodies of more than 10 others.
Top officials from Israel, Egypt and the Hamas movement have all said the process would begin within days, but so far there have been no specific details on the timing or the location of the swap. “We are proving, for who knows how many times, that each of our soldiers is a world unto himself, and we will make a supreme effort to bring him home. The deal is a tough one, but it was the best possible to reach in these conditions,” Home Front Security Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal thanked all the countries who participated in brokering the prisoner exchange, including Turkey, Qatar and Germany, but stressed that the success “does not belong to any one Palestinian party or faction. This is a national Palestinian achievement,” Ynet news website reported.
Hamas’ rival group al-Fatah’s senior official Qadura Fares said the party was very pleased with the deal. “This deal represents closure and a great achievement for both Israel and the Palestinians.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Turkey’s and particularly Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts. Stating that Erdoğan’s attitude was a surprise for him, Peres said: “They put all things aside and they gave priority to the humanitarian dimension instead of the political dimension,” Anatolia news agency reported.
The family of Shalit is planning to pack up their tent outside the Israeli prime minister’s residence, Shalit’s father said after learning of the deal for the release of their son. Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet Director Yoram Cohen said yesterday that the prisoner swap agreement reached between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian mediation, included the best terms possible for Israel with regards to security, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. Two of the most widely known Palestinian militants jailed in Israel are not part of the swap, Cohen added. They are Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Abbas’s Fatah faction serving five life-long prison terms for murder, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the murder of Israel’s tourism minister in 2001.
Analysts said Hamas’ reputation in the Palestinian territories would be bolstered dramatically as a result of the deal. The deal stands to boost Hamas’s profile at a time when attention has been focused on Abbas and the U.N. bid. It is also likely to improve Hamas’s standing in reconciliation talks with Abbas’s rival al-Fatah party, which have effectively stalled over the issue of who will head an interim government of independents before new elections are held.