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Middle East

Israel rejoices at Shalit deal as critics question the cost

Exchange of some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for soldier's freedom rejected by right-wingers

As most Israelis jubilantly awaited the imminent release of Gilad Shalit, the Jewish soldier spirited into Gaza by militants during a cross-border raid five years ago, some were questioning the cost of a historic deal that one Israeli cabinet official called "a huge victory for terror".

The highly emotive saga that has transfixed the country was concluded with Israel and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, sealing a landmark deal late on Tuesday to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the soldier's freedom amid Israeli fears that chaos in the region would soon put a deal out of reach.

It was a testament to the strength of public support for a deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to whip his cabinet largely into line to vote in favour of the prisoner exchange. But there were some who feared that Israel was paying too high a price. "The release of terrorists is a message that is simple: abductions pay off. Terror pays," said Uzi Landau, an ultranationalist politician who was one of three cabinet members to oppose the swap, which includes the release of more than 300 Palestinians serving life terms.

Avigdor Lieberman, the firebrand Foreign Minister, and Moshe Ya'alon, a member of Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party, also opposed the deal in the vote that went 26-3, but failed to block an exchange that had repeatedly collapsed over a reluctance by both sides to compromise on key demands.

Even as it appeared that Hamas was willing to settle for less – finally dropping demands for the release of symbolic figures like Marwan Barghouti, a potential successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the killing of Israel's Tourism Minister in 2001 – the Islamist party stood to make huge political capital from the Egypt-brokered deal as the prisoners come home.

Although Palestinians widely welcomed the development, a close ally of Mr Barghouti criticised Hamas, complaining that the agreement fell far short of what many had hoped for.

"Hamas said they would never change their conditions and yet the framework of this deal is what [Israel] suggested two years ago," said Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club, referring to the failure to secure the release of Mr Barghouti and Mr Saadat. And 203 prisoners whose families are in the West Bank are to be deported either to the Gaza Strip or abroad after their release, a particularly sensitive issue among Palestinians.

As Israel headed into the Jewish festival Sukkot, the Shalit family was yesterday packing up its tent outside the Prime Minister's residence after a year-long vigil.

Vox pop: 'We had to save him'

Haim Silver, Corporal

"There was really no other way to do it. It's important for morale. We are finally getting back one of our own. I'm proud to be serving a good cause."

Johanna Levi, Volunteer

"We couldn't leave him there. I am very glad for the family, for everyone, but I'm afraid there will be another intifada like before. We had to do it."

Gabrielle Rossano, Student

"I'm so happy that Gilad is coming home. Everyone has been praying for this. Having 1,000 prisoners returned is obviously a big decision."

Aryeh Carmi, American Jew

"They will do anything to get a prisoner of war back, but it's short-sighted because [Palestinians] end up killing people, lots of people."