Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Hamas and Israel exchange prisoners

The first phase of a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel has now concluded, with over 400 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in exchange for the handing over of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas five years ago.

Shalit was handed over to Egyptian officials at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and was then taken by Israeli officials to the Tel Nof air base.

The release prompted the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners by Israel to Gaza and elsewhere.

In an interview with Egyptian television at Rafah, Shalit said that he hoped that the deal that allowed for his release on Tuesday would help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace.

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"I will be very happy if all Palestinian prisoners are freed so they can go back to their families [...] I hope this deal could help reach peace between Israelis and the Palestinians and strengthen cooperation," he said.

He said that he feared that he would be in captivity for "many more years", but was "very excited" to be headed home.

Shalit was in Israeli hands for the first time in five years and four months, reported Al Jazeera's Cal Perry from Jerusalem.

He was received by Israeli army officers and doctors, and was in "good and stable health" a statement from the Israeli army said.

He was allowed to speak with his family over the telephone at an Israeli army base near the crossing point, and then flown via helicopter to the Tel Nof air base in central Israel, to be reunited with his mother and father, and to meet with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the statement said.

PM Netanyahu warned the released Palestinian prisoners that if they were deemed to have returned to violence, they would be punished.

"We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable."

Shalit later will be flown to his home in northern Israel.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mark Regev, the Israeli PM's spokesman, said that his government had allowed the Red Cross regular access to Palestinian prisoners, adding "they didn't look like [Shalit], who's come out of five years living in a hole under the ground".

"We are releasing today people who are guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity. People who blew up bombs in restaurants, killing families, killing children," he said.

On Shalit's comments regarding his hope that the swap will help in any negotiations regarding peace, Regev said:

FACTBOX: Where are the prisoners going to go?

1-131: Homes in Gaza Strip
132 - 186: Homes in occupied West Bank (oWB) or East Jerusalem
187 - 241: Under security in oWB or East Jerusalem
242 - 281: Abroad
282 - 299: Gaza Strip (for three years)
300 - 444: Gaza Strip
445 - 450: Homes in Israel
451 - 477: Homes in oWB, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem
473: Home in Jordan
474: Home in Gaza Strip
For the list of the first phase of prisoners to be released click here
"I think Gilad Shalit was expressing the hope of all Israelis, that we hope to live in peace and reconciliation with our neighbours. [...]

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