By Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post
TEL NOF AIR FORCE BASE, Israel — Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned to Israel Tuesday morning after five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip, gaunt and frail-looking but apparently healthy.
His release by the militant Palestinian group Hamas launched a prisoner swap that ultimately will include the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. A total of 477 prisoners were freed Tuesday, after Shalit was
Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip says the militant group has officially turned over captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to Egypt as part of a prisoner swap with Israel.
Shalit, now 25, was 19 years old when he was seized by Hamas militants who had tunneled under the border between Gaza and Israel. The campaign to free him drew support from across Israel, despite anguish over the decision to release of hundreds of Palestinians convicted of planning or carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians.
“Gilad Shalit has returned to his country, his homeland and his family,” Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli army spokesman, said after the young soldier’s release. “For over five years we have been . . . with Gilad Shalit. Today, Gilad Shalit is with us.”
Shalit was taken by Hamas officials from Gaza into Egypt, then turned over to Israeli officials and taken across the border. He was examined by doctors and given a chance to speak to relatives by telephone; at some point, he changed out of the plaid shirt he had been wearing and into an Israeli army uniform, which hung loosely on his thin frame.
“I thought that I would find myself in this situation many more years,” Shalit, who appeared somewhat dazed, said in a brief interview with Egyptian state television before he was brought into Israel. “If they wanted to secure my freedom, they had to pay a price for this.”
Shalit was flown by military helicopter to this air base in central Israel, where he was reunited with his family just after 1 p.m. local time (7 a.m. in Washington). He saluted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who embraced him.
“How good that you have returned home,” Netanyahu told Shalit, according to Israeli media accounts.
Netanyahu told reporters that the case of the abducted soldier was among the toughest he inherited when he assumed office 2 1 / 2 years ago. He said Israel had paid a “heavy price” to secure Shalit’s release.
“On this day,” Netanyahu said, “all of us are united in happiness and pain.”
While Israeli officials offered a subdued homecoming ceremony for Shalit, reflecting their concern about the Palestinian militants who were being freed, Hamas leaders organized a triumphant reception for those former prisoners.
The first busloads of released Palestinians, including women, crossed the border into Egypt around the same time Shalit was handed over to the Israelis. The Palestinians were taken to Gaza and the West Bank, where jubilant crowds awaited them, and to a few other locations.
In Gaza, buses transporting the freed prisoners arrived around midday. Crowds of Hamas fighters, including some of the men who kidnapped Shalit in 2006, were among the well-wishers. Relatives swarmed over the buses looking for their loved ones.
In the West Bank, Palestinian youths clashed briefly with Israeli troops after a misunderstanding about where the prisoners would be dropped off. Relatives had been expecting the freed inmates to arrive at the Bitunyah crossing, but they were instead taken to the Mukatah, the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s government in Ramallah.
“The issue of prisoners has always been in our minds and our hearts,” Abbas told the prisoners during a crowded and jubilant welcoming ceremony.
Hamas leaders have billed the swap as a failure for Israel and have said it will embolden the movement’s will to end what it calls the occupation of Palestinian land. Israeli leaders have said they reached the best deal they could.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s office released a letter the prime minister had written to the relatives of the victims of those attacks.
“Numerous misgivings accompanied me throughout the negotiations,” the prime minister wrote. “You were always in my thoughts.” He said the swap was “among the most difficult” decisions he’s ever made.
Tami Shienkman, a spokesman for Shalit’s family, said the soldier’s mother has cooked his favorite meal — pasta and soup. She said the family will seek to shield him from reporters and others over the coming days. “He needs time to settle down.”
Officials said they would guard Shalit’s privacy zealously. A corporal when abducted, Shalit was promoted twice while in custody and again, to sergeant major, on the eve of his release.
Shalit’s father, Noam, appeared Monday before the Israeli Supreme Court, where he came face to face with relatives of victims of terrorist attacks who oppose the deal. Several relatives filed motions urging the court to annul the deal, and according to Israeli news reports, some angrily confronted the soldier’s father. Noam Shalit submitted a written response to the objections, arguing that the swap should be carried out.
The court rejected the appeals late Monday night.
Special correspondents Islam Karim in Gaza and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Emotions are high but the Palestinians don’t understand the real prize they have paid and will pay for this prisoner swap. The whole Shalit deal is only part of a clever political game. You will see: once the release of prisoners is completed, Israel will use this as an example to show to the world that negotiations with Israel do lead to solutions and this will strengthen their position against the Palestinian bid at the UN significantly, as they claim that only negotiations can lead to peace. So for Israel this deal is a clever move with a very good timing! But as for the Palestinians, I know it sounds weird (as we only consider the numbers 1027 for 1!), but for them unfortunately this is a very bad bargain in the long run. But also if we look back, the abduction of Shalit in 2006 was kind of justification for the blockade of Gaza, under which all Palestinians in Gaza suffered and hundreds died. Additionally there was the war on Gaza in 2008-09 which was also partly justified with the abduction of Shalit. Alltogether what the Palestinians have paid so far is the life of thousands plus the suffering of millions.
Very true indeed, however, seeing the joy of all the families whose fathers and brothers return is worth the risk. Yes, nothing really changes towards the two state solution. Prisoner releases, UN recognition – all of it will not make a difference on the political / military fronts.