Day One of freedom for Mideast swap club

Shalit, whose skinny frame is the talk of Israel, took a morning stroll with his mother outside the family home.

Gaza: Palestinians freed by Israel in a trade for soldier Gilad Shalit took their morning exercise on Wednesday around a luxury swimming pool overlooking the Mediterranean, instead of circling the prison yard as they have done for long years inside.

There was none of the usual breakfast-room free-for-all at Gaza`s 4-star Al-Mashtal beach front hotel. The 105 special guests, looking a little uncertain, lined up obediently to shuffle around the breakfast bar one by one, canteen-style.

It was their first morning of freedom following the 1000-for-1 swap of Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Islamist Hamas militants in 2006 and held hostage in Gaza for over five years.

A few of the Palestinians released served 30 years in jail.

Shalit, whose skinny frame is the talk of Israel, took a morning stroll with his mother outside the family home in a leafy village in northern Israel, accompanied by police who formed a protective guard around him.

"You have to start with something," his father, Noam, told reporters. "Gilad feels well. He needs time for himself."

The 25-year-old Israeli soldier looked hollow-eyed and white-skinned. Like the pale, lean Palestinian men exploring Gaza`s most modern hotel, he will need time to acclimatize himself to strange surroundings -- things like mirrored elevators, smart phones, helpful waiters.

"The first day of freedom feels like being reborn," said Salem Thwaib, a 30-year-old from Bethlehem who did 10 years of his life term in an Israel jail for helping a Hamas suicide bomber whose vest failed to explode.

Deportation Beats Prison

Israel released 477 Palestinian prisoners including 27 women in the first part of a swap of 1,027 for Shalit.

A quarter went to the West Bank, 41 went into exile in foreign countries and the rest were brought to Gaza from Egypt, which mediated in years of exchange negotiations.

Thwaib was among 165 from the West Bank who were sent to Gaza under the terms of the deal. The blockaded Gaza Strip is divided from the West Bank by a swathe of Israeli territory.

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in the coastal enclave, authorized a grant of $588,000 for 294 freed prisoners in Gaza.

Thwaib has to spend the rest of his life in the overcrowded coastal enclave. He has not yet decided whether to find a wife in Gaza or invite a woman from his hometown to join him.

Fatima Mohammed, who came to Gaza from the northern West Bank city of Nablus to see her freed son Bilal, said next time she comes she might bring the 33-year-old Hamas activist a wife.

"He slept in my arms," she said fondly. Bilal was sentenced to 20 years for complicity in the killing of a Jewish settler in 2002 -- a charge he never admitted.

"For nine years I have yearned to touch my mother," he said as they sat together in the shade of date palms overlooking the brilliant sea.

Like Shalit, whose tentative first steps of freedom betrayed his great uncertainty, the Palestinians will need time to get used to liberty. Many were still rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the brand new world around them.

Thwaib lashed out at some Palestinians who questioned the terms of the swap for Shalit. Deportation to Gaza was a lot better than more years in an Israeli jail, he said.

"Did they want us to remain in prison?"

Bureau Report

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