Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and held in Gaza for more than five years, was freed Tuesday in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israel’s history.
Looking thin and walking slowly, Shalit emerged from a pickup truck Tuesday under the escort of masked Hamas captors and was handed over to Egyptian mediators who helped arrange his release. The 25-year-old soldier was transferred to Israeli custody and flown by military helicopter to an air force base in central Israel to reunite with family.
Shalit was captured in June 2006 during a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants who tunneled under Israel’s border with Gaza.
In an interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his release, an ashen-faced Shalit struggled to breathe as he said he had feared he would remain in captivity for “many more years.” He said he was “very excited” to be headed home and that he missed his family and friends.
“I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted the reunion at the Tel Nof air base. He told an audience that he understood the pain of Israeli families who lost relatives in Palestinian violence, but that Israel’s ethos of doing everything possible to bring its soldiers home safely forced him to act.
He also issued a staunch warning to the freed militants. “We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable,” he said.
At the same time, Israel was releasing 477 Palestinian prisoners, including 27 women. Some will return to their homes in the West Bank; others will be deported to Gaza, Egypt or other Arab states. An additional 550 prisoners are slated to be released in two months.
Hamas sees the prisoner release as a major victory, and the Palestinian prisoners, dozens of whom were serving life sentences for deadly attacks, returned to wild celebrations.
NPR’s Peter Kenyon, reporting from the West Bank city of Ramallah, said thousands of people had gathered at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, many singing and chanting and waving the green and white flag of Hamas.
“Today is a day of happiness for families, it’s a day of popularity for Hamas and a day when everyone seems to be talking about resisting the occupation as opposed to negotiating,” Kenyon said. “We’re seeing prisoners, some of whom have been in jail for decades, carried on the shoulders of their cousins and nephews. Tearful mothers and sisters are embracing them, and then they are heading home to their villages, where the celebrations will start in earnest.”
Some of the relatives raised Palestinian flags or the green banners of Hamas. A group of young men chanted, “We will continue our struggle.”
“We’re so excited we can barely breathe,” said Mariam Shkair, waiting for her brother, 52-year-old Abdel Latif, who spent 25 years in prison for killing an Israeli soldier. “We are waiting to hug him.”
Tempering the jubilation, one Hamas representative noted that 5,000 prisoners remain in Israeli jails, Kenyon said. Some of the freed prisoners also said their top priority was to get their fellow prisoners out and to try and stop the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory.
In the West Bank, released prisoners were taken to the grave of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them, and several thousand people filled the courtyard outside his headquarters to celebrate.
“We thank God for your return and your safety,” Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.”
The swap got under way early Tuesday as Hamas moved Shalit across Gaza’s border with Egypt, while Israel simultaneously began freeing the Palestinian prisoners. At midmorning, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said his group was no longer holding the soldier.
Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV reported that a high-level Hamas delegation arrived on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to hand over Shalit and to greet the returning prisoners.
Before dawn, convoys of white vans and trucks transported hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to the locations in the West Bank and on the Israel-Egypt border where they were released.
The exchange, negotiated through Egyptian mediators because Israel and Hamas will not talk directly to each other, went ahead despite criticism and court appeals in Israel against the release of the prisoners. Nearly 300 of them were serving lengthy sentences for involvement in deadly attacks.
The swap involves a delicate series of staged releases, each one triggering the next. The Red Cross and Egyptian officials are involved in facilitating the movement of prisoners.
In Israel, where an intense media campaign to free Shalit made him a national symbol, all local radio and TV stations held special live broadcasts Tuesday, following every step of the exchange.
His father, Noam Shalit, has become a ubiquitous figure in Israel since his son’s capture and led a massive campaign to press the government into bringing the 25-year-old home.
At the Shalits’ hometown in Mitzpe Hila, an access road was guarded by police festooned with banners welcoming the soldier. At the entrance, dozens of youths wore white T-shirts with Shalit’s image and waved Israeli flags. A loud cheer erupted when the video of Shalit was shown on Israeli TV.
Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of talks through German and Egyptian mediators. But officials on both sides have said that conditions prompted in part by the recent Egyptian revolution helped drive them to an agreement. Both sides have been eager to have good ties with the new Egyptian leadership, which brokered the deal.
With reporting from NPR’s Peter Kenyon in Ramallah and Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.