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Hamas frees Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in prisoner swap

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel's borders in opposite directions on Tuesday as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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

Simultaneously, Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.

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 all, Israel is setting free 1,027 Palestinians in return for the liberty of Shalit. Some have spent 30 years behind bars for violent attacks against Israel and its occupation of land taken in the 1967 Middle East War.

Over 100 of the 477 prisoners released in the first phase of the exchange were taken to the West Bank. The rest were coming into Gaza, apart from 41 who were due to fly out from Cairo to exile in Turkey, Syria or Qatar.

A further 550 Palestinians are planned to be set free later this year in an elaborate prisoner swap deal that involves a series of staged releases, each one triggering the next.

Hamas and other Gaza militant groups have vowed to seize more Israeli hostages for exchange until all 5,000 Palestinians still in Israeli prisons are released.

"The rest of the prisoners must be released because if they are not released in a normal way they will be released in other ways," said Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas deputy leader in exile.

Outpouring of emotion
Sergeant Shalit, 25, returned home to a national outpouring of emotion in Israel after five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip, while 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," a pale and extremely thin Shalit said in an interview with Egyptian TV conducted before he was transferred to Israel and broadcast after he went free.

"I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians," said Shalit, whose breathing labored at times.

Shalit was examined by military doctors after being freed.  An Israeli military official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press that the freed soldier showed signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to the sun.

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

At Tel Nof air base in central Israel, Shalit saw his parents, whose public campaign for his release put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with a bitter enemy. Netanyahu also met Shalit there. Later, Shalit flew by helicopter to his family home in northern Israel.

Shalit reportedly said he was happy after meeting his family.

"Gilad spoke very quietly and said he was tired and would like to get some sleep," Gilad Shalit's grandfather Zvi Shalit said, according to .

Gilad Shalit was "in better shape than what we had feared," Zvi Shalit reportedly added.

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 cellular telephones.

Shalit has been popularly portrayed as "everyone's son" and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the thousand-for-one deal, although many of the prisoners going free were convicted of deadly attacks.

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.

The deal received a green light from Israel's Supreme Court late on Monday after it rejected petitions from the public to prevent the mass release of prisoners, many serving life sentences imposed by Israeli courts for deadly attacks.

Cross-border raid
Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled 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.

A convoy carrying Palestinian prisoners is seen as it leaves the Ketziot prison in southern Israel October 18, 2011. A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas began before dawn on Tuesday when the first of hundreds of Palestinian inmates were bused from their jails to border crossings where they will be swapped for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)Ronen Zvulun / X90084

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

The deal with Hamas, a group classified by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, is not expected to spur peace negotiations.

Those talks, led by Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over settlement building in the occupied West Bank. Abbas now wants the U.N. to recognize Palestinian statehood, a unilateral bid opposed by Israel and its main ally, the United States.

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.

"I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve," Netanyahu wrote in a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families.

'I must be dreaming'
Qahera Assadi, one of 27 released female prisoners, fainted when greeted by her loved ones after her release in the West Bank. She regained consciousness minutes later as medics splashed her face with water.

"I must be dreaming," said Assadi, speaking during the chaos of a reception at the Palestinian presidency in Ramallah where thousands gathered to welcome the ex-prisoners as national heroes.

"I can't believe it, I can't believe it," she repeated, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The sister of one of the most prominent Islamic Jihad leaders in the West Bank, Assadi had been handed three life terms for acting as a logistical officer for the Islamic Jihad group and driving a suicide bomber to a target in Jerusalem where he killed three people in 2002.

Assadi was arrested in 2002, at the height of the last Palestinian uprising against Israel. The Jenin refugee camp became notorious in Israel during the Intifada as a hub for gun and suicide attacks but was a symbol of the armed struggle among Palestinians.

"I am not at all regretful about what I did. I did what I did in defense of my nation and children and have no regrets at all," she said, adding "I was kidnapped from my children and spent a decade in prison."