Jerusalem: In a much-anticipated prisoner exchange that could have broad implications, Israel and Hamas on Tuesday announced that an Israeli soldier abducted to Gaza five years ago would be swapped for about 1,000 Palestinians held by Israel and accused of militant activity.
Israel`s government approved the deal early Wednesday following a three-hour debate after both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal announced the agreement in televised comments.
Netanyahu said the captured soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, would return home within days. Mashaal, portraying the agreement as a victory, said the Palestinian prisoners would be freed in two stages over two months.
Hamas and Israel are bitter enemies. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds, and Israel blockaded Gaza after Hamas seized power there in 2007, carrying out a large-scale invasion in 2009 to try to stop daily rocket attacks on Israel. More than 1,500 Gaza Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids and airstrikes since the soldier was captured.
In the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, thousands of Hamas supporters flocked the streets, led by masked militants. Cars with loudspeakers played praise for Hamas. Thousands of other Gazans rushed to their border with Egypt, clutching Palestinian and Egyptian flags, tossing flowers and cheering.
Gaza`s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, smiled as he threw candy to celebrating backers.
The deal maintains a decades-long tradition of lopsided exchanges that have come under increasing criticism in Israel — and ends a period of tortured indecision by Israeli governments torn between securing the release of a single soldier and the risk that freed militants might return to violence that could cost many more lives.
"There is built-in tension between the desire to return a kidnapped soldier ... and the need to preserve the security of the citizens of Israel," Netanyahu said, in comments at opening the Cabinet meeting. "I believe we reached the best deal that we can reach at this time, a stormy time in the Middle East."
In agreeing to go ahead with the deal, the career hard-liner made a potentially fateful choice.
It gives Hamas, a militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, a victory that might strengthen its hand against the more moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank.
Mashaal said 1,000 male prisoners and 27 female ones would be released, the first 450 over the next week and the rest within two months. He said the released would include 315 prisoners serving life sentences, suggesting they were convicted of attacks that caused the deaths of Israelis.
Seeming to confirm Israel`s fears, Mashaal said that those who are released "will return to ... the national struggle."
"This is a national achievement for the whole Palestinian people," Mashaal said, adding that he was pained not to be able to release the thousands of remaining prisoners held by Israel. The exact number of prisoners is under some contention, with the Palestinians citing 8,000 and Israel confirming about 5,000.
Yoram Cohen, head of Israel`s Shin Bet security agency, said over the course of six secret rounds of talks in recent months, Hamas had backed down from key demands, including the release of some top militants. He said about 40 of the first group of prisoners would be exiled to other countries.
News of the deal set off wild celebrations at a protest tent erected by Schalit`s family outside Netanyahu`s residence in Jerusalem. Several hundred people danced in the street and waved flags with Schalit`s image on it.