Israel and Hamas said tonight that a deal had been struck to exchange Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Shalit, held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than five years, would be home in the “next few days.”
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal trumpeted the “national achievement” of exchanging 1,027 Palestinians prisoners “for just one Israeli prisoner.” He said the release of Palestinian prisoners would take place in two stages, with 450 to be released in the coming days and the next 550 within two months. Among the prisoners to be released are 27 women and 315 men serving life sentences.
It is not clear when or where Shalit would be released.
Netanyahu convened a special meeting of his full cabinet tonight to discuss and vote on the swap, saying at the beginning of the meeting, “if all goes as planned, Gilad will be back in Israel in the next few days with his family and his people.”
Netanyahu said it was imperative to strike a deal now, “when storms are sweeping the Middle East.” “I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all,” he continued. “It is very possible that this window of opportunity, that opened because of the circumstances, would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all.”
There was celebration both at the Shalit tent vigil in Jerusalem as well as in Hamas-controlled Gaza where guns were fired in the air.
“Those who will be released are heroes who will come back to freedom and struggle against occupation,” said Meshaal, speaking from Syria’s capital Damsacus where he is based. He added that he was disappointed to not be able to announce the release of all Palestinians from Israeli jails.
Shalit was captured by Hamas militants in a cross border raid in June 2006. The young sergeant was 19 at the time. In the past five years, he has been allowed no visitors and was last seen in a video clip in October 2009.
Egypt and a German negotiator had been mediating discussions between the two sides and previous close deals had fallen apart. One Israeli official told ABC News that Hamas is now currying favor with Egypt’s new government because they want to move their leadership from Syria – in the throes of a bloody uprising in which thousands of Sunni Muslims have died – to Egypt.
Shalit’s face can be found on billboards, bumper stickers and flags across Israel. Every up and down in the negotiations for his release is a headline in the Israeli media and every Israeli politician must prove how dedicated he or she is to releasing Shalit. In a country where military service is mandatory, Shalit’s plight touched many here. However, the release of so many prisoners for Shalit is controversial given the many Israeli deaths they are convicted of. No names have been made official but protests broke out in Israel about some of the rumored names.
“It is a very difficult decision,” said Netanyahu. “I feel for the families of victims of terror, I appreciate their suffering and distress, I am one of them. But leadership must be examined at moments such as this, being able to make difficult, but right, decisions.”