Amid joy and anger, Shalit prisoner swap underway

Oct 18, 2011

After five years in captivity, young soldier comes home – but at what cost, ask angry Israelis

CONVOYS of Israeli vehicles packed with Palestinian prisoners took up position on the border with Gaza this morning as the prisoner swap in exchange for Gilad Shalit got underway. Relatives assembled on the Gaza side, and Hamas planned to greet their return with a mass rally and ceremony involving the laying flowers at the tomb of Yasser Arafat.

Meanwhile Shalit himself arrived in Egypt where, as part of the negotiated deal, he was examined by Israeli medics before any prisoners were released. Very little has been seen of the 25-year-old soldier during his five years in captivity - just one scripted video appearance in 2009, an audio tape in 2007 and a few letters – so his mental and physical state is unknown.

Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu joined Shalit's family, who had campaigned long and loud for his release, at an Israeli airforce base where they were due to greet their son later this morning. Present were Shalit's parents, brother and sister and grandparents.

Shalit's father, Noam, has said today is the "happiest day" of his life – and many Israelis will celebrate for the Shalit family. Some, however, feel that too high a price is being paid for the return of one man, with Netanyahu agreeing to the release of 1,000 male and 27 female prisoners

The release takes place in two stages: 450 men and the 27 women today and the other 550 men within months. Around 40 are being deported to other Arab countries including Syria, while around 200 originally from the West Bank are being released to the Gaza strip.

There was an early wobble today when two female prisoners at first refused to be sent to Gaza. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that one of the women was reluctant to be sent there because she had apparently bullied her cell-mates and feared reprisals from their families. In gthe end, she relented.

There is no doubt that securing Shalit's release is a coup for Netanyahu. As The First Post has reported before, the Shalit family's cause celebre resonates with every Israeli: the country's national service programme is so strictly inclusive that almost everybody has a relative in the army.

But many Israelis are outraged at the identities of some of those due to be released. One of them, Husam Badran, is believed to be the instigator of a 2001 nightclub bombing which killed 21 young Israelis and injured 132.

One young mother visiting a memorial to that atrocity told The Guardian last week: "It's beyond belief. I may be the only one against it, but no good deal sees the release of 1,000 killers.

"People say Netanyahu showed courage in agreeing to set them free, but I say he has given in to terrorism."

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