Israeli-Palestinian joy at Gilad Shalit prisoner swap

Gilad Shalit says he missed his family while in captivity and has much to do now he is free

Jubilant crowds in Israel and the Palestinian territories have been celebrating a historic prisoner swap.

Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, allowing most to go back to Gaza and the West Bank, in exchange for the return of soldier Gilad Shalit.

Sgt Shalit is spending his first night at home since he was snatched by militants in a cross-border raid five years ago.

He received a hero’s welcome in his hometown.

Both PM Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of the Islamist movement Hamas, who closed the deal, hailed it as a vindication for their policies.

But correspondents say the swap is unlikely to have a major effect on wider peace talks.

At the scene

image of Richard GalpinRichard GalpinBBC News, Mitzpe Hila

For Israel this has been a day of great joy, but also of concern for the consequences of releasing of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners as the price for ending Gilad Shalit’s long years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Sgt Shalit himself does appear to be in better health than many had expected. Although pale and weak, after being locked inside for more than five years, his father said he did feel all right.

The people in his hometown here in northern Israel lined the streets to welcome him home, showering the convoy of vehicles with flowers and champagne. But so far he has not come out to meet people. His father said it was too early – he needs a period of rehabilitation to adjust to normal life.

Sgt Shalit, 25, was released early in the day and ushered over the Gaza border to Egypt, where he gave an interview to Egyptian state TV.

He seemed short of breath and disorientated, and angry Israeli officials later protested that the interview was forced on him and “violated all the basic ethical rules of journalism”.

By the end of the day, he was back in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila, where flag-waving crowds lined the streets and cheered as he sped past in a white van and was ushered into the family home.

His father, Noam, gave a news conference later, saying his son felt all right but needed time to readjust to normal life.

“Our son has been reborn. We’re concluding a long and difficult journey. We’re glad that we won our son back,” said Mr Shalit.

He said he could not give too many details of his son’s captivity, saying only that in the early years he had been subjected to “harsh treatment” which had softened over time.

Sgt Shalit was a 19-year-old tank crewman when he was captured in June 2006. His family lived in a protest tent in Jerusalem for 16 months while they campaigned for his release.


Meanwhile, 477 Palestinians were freed, in the first part of an amnesty that will eventually see 1,027 prisoners released.

Some of the Palestinians had been in prison for decades, and some had been convicted of serious crimes such as murder and orchestrating suicide attacks.

Tens of thousands lined the streets of Hamas-controlled Gaza, where most of the freed prisoners were sent.

Witnesses said there were thousands of gun-toting masked Hamas militants, clad in black and green, patrolling roads.

Hamas wanted a show of force, but many believe they have now played their trump card by handing over Sgt Shalit, says the BBC’s Jon Donnison in Gaza City.

The Islamist movement’s leader Khaled Meshaal, speaking in Cairo, praised the swap, claiming it as a victory.

“Negotiation based on power forces the enemy to pay the price. We have defeated the Israelis,” he said.

In the West Bank, where dozens more were sent, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised the former detainees as “freedom fighters”.

Mr Abbas, whose Fatah movement appeared to have been outflanked by the swap deal, promised that more Palestinian prisoners would be freed soon.

Meanwhile 11 prisoners, who were deemed by Israel to be too dangerous to stay in the West Bank or Gaza, were greeted in the Turkish capital Ankara by Palestinian ambassador Nabil Marouf and Turkish officials.

Sixteen arrived in Syria to a welcome by flag waving crowds in the capital, Damascus. One woman arrived in Jordan and others were sent to Qatar.


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