Gilad Shalit freed in prisoner swap deal

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel's borders in opposite directions today as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.

Sergeant Shalit, 25, returned home to a national outpouring of emotion in Israel after five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip. The first few hundred of over a thousand Palestinians being freed in stages from Israeli jails were greeted with kisses and flags in Gaza and the West Bank.



"I missed my family very much," a gaunt Shalit, his breathing laboured at times, said in an interview with Egyptian television, conducted before he was transferred to Israel. "I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians."



But on the eve of the prisoner exchange, it emerged that international efforts to revive peace talks that collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building had failed to bring both sides together for meetings scheduled for 26 October in Jerusalem.



Envoys from the Quartet of mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - will instead hold separate sessions with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel's destruction, opposes the peace process.







Shalit was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt's Sinai peninsula and driven to Israel's Kerem Shalom - Vineyard of Peace - border crossing, from where a helicopter flew him to an Israeli air base for a reunion with his parents.



Simultaneously Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip and many serving life terms for attacks that killed Israelis. Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.



Egypt helped to mediate the long-awaited deal, and its army-backed interim government has sought to revive the country's role as a diplomatic linchpin in the Middle East.



Palestinians, awaiting the release of prisoners at a West Bank checkpoint, hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, after the military announced to the crowd over a loudspeaker that the group had been taken to another crossing.



In the television interview, Shalit said he found out a week ago that he was to be released. The soldier, who had not been seen since a 2009 video, said he had feared he would be held "for many more years".



Political commentators said it appeared unlikely the prisoner exchange agreed by the two bitter enemies would have any immediate impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down last year.



The mood in Israel was one of elation, with "welcome home" signs on street corners and morning commuters watching live broadcasts of the swap on mobile phones.



Shalit has been popularly portrayed as "everyone's son" and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the deal.



A military statement said he was in good health and the army released photographs of him, back in uniform and spectacles, saluting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But witnesses said Shalit felt had nauseous and weak on his arrival in Israel and needed oxygen.



"I brought your boy home," Netanyahu said he told Shalit's parents, as he waited with them at the air base for the soldier's helicopter to land. The military distributed a photo of a uniformed Shalit saluting Netanyahu.







Shalit's parents had waged a public campaign to urge the right-wing leader to do more to secure his release and had set up a protest tent near Netanyahu's residence.



"But it's still a difficult day, and the price was heavy," Netanyahu said in a speech at the base, warning released prisoners "who return to terror" that they are "taking their life in their hands".



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.



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



While Hamas's leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, embraced freed prisoners as they piled out of buses at the border town of Rafah, President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival, secular Fatah movement, made a speech of welcome in the West Bank city of Ramallah, near Jerusalem.



Some see the prisoner deal as a boost for Hamas at the expense of Abbas, who has renounced violence in favour of negotiation but has so far failed to see years of talks with Israel produce major progress toward a Palestinian state.



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. The deal received a green light from Israel's Supreme Court late yesterday after it rejected petitions from relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks to prevent the mass release.



Palestinians set free included Nasser Yatayma, serving a life sentence for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 30 people attending a Jewish Passover seder, or traditional meal, in a hotel in central Israel in 2002.



Amana Mona, a Palestinian activist from the West Bank, was also released. She was jailed for life for using an Internet chatroom and promises of sex to lure a 16-year-old Israeli to his death in 2001, when she was 24.



Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He was whisked back into Gaza and has since been held incommunicado.



Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the small coastal enclave after Shalit's disappearance.

Reuters

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable