After five years, debate over fate of Gilad Shalit reaches its climax

Parents of imprisoned soldier implore Israeli court to ignore late objections from victims' families

The family of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza, yesterday implored Israel's highest court to reject calls to delay a contentious prisoner exchange as the Jewish soldier was poised to return home after more than five years in captivity.

The Supreme Court was last night expected to reject the appeals from families against the deal to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – some of them involved in the most notorious attacks on Israeli soil – in exchange for the young soldier, captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, who wrote in a letter to the court that any delay would put his son's life in jeopardy, braved angry heckling fromthe families of those killed in terror attacks as he arrived at the court to argue for the deal to go ahead. "Hang a black flag over your home in Mitzpe Hila, this is a day of mourning," shouted Shvuel Schijveschuurder, 27, who lost his parents and three siblings in the 2001 suicide bombing of the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem, according to Israel media reports.

Sgt Shalit, held incommunicado since his capture, is expected to return to a hero's welcome today in Israel, where the deal has received overwhelming public support. Thousands of Palestinians are also preparing huge celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank to welcome home their relatives, some of whom have sat in Israeli jails for more than 30 years.

The Egypt-brokered prisoner exchange – which will see a first tranche of 477 prisoners freed today in exchange for Sgt Shalit – is the culmination of years of often-fraught negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza. It also concludes a painful chapter for Israelis, many of whom have identified closely with Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old corporal at the time of his capture.

But some Israelis – particularly those who lost relatives in terror attacks – have openly questioned the high price of the deal, which includes the release of nearly 300 Palestinians serving life terms, warning that it will only put more lives in danger.

In a letter to the families of terror victims, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his decision, saying that he wrote with a "heavy heart". The decision, he said, was one of the most difficult he had ever made.

"I was faced with the responsibility... to bring home every soldier who is sent to protect our citizens," he said.

With emotions running high,several families interrupted the court session to voice their opposition to the deal. "Every Israeli should be worried now," Meir Indor, head of the Almagor group for terror victims' families, said during a break in the hearing.

"We are talking about releasing the masters of terrorism, 450 big shots. That's a big danger to our society."

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Noam Shalit said he understood that this was a "difficult deal" for the families, but added that "unfortunately, suspending the deal won't bring the victims of terror back, but it could condemn Gilad to death."

Israel will initially release 27 women prisoners, and only when Sgt Shalit is in Egyptian hands in the Sinai will the 450 male prisoners be freed, some 300 of them to Gaza. Forty prisoners are to go into exile.

Gilad Shalit, meanwhile, will cross into Israel, where he will undergo a brief medical check, before being flown to the Tel Nof airbase, south of Tel Aviv, where he will reunited with his family.

Case study: 'Israel should protect us'

Sixteen-year-old Shoshi Ben Yishai was returning home from school when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on her bus in Jerusalem 10 years ago. Her father, Yitzhak, says she would still be alive had she not dived on to her best friend, leaving herself exposed to the gunman's shots. "She was willing to sacrifice her life for a friend," he says.

Mr Ben Yishai says his country's leadership has made "a big mistake" in allowing Palestinian militants to go free. "The law is broken," he says. "All the strategies Israel had to fight terror have just collapsed. Israel is supposed to protect its citizens," he says, "so students will not be killed on their way to school, so the lives of men and women living in this country will not be endangered."

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