Beitunia: Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the second and final phase
of a swap with Gaza Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.
Under the Egypt-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange
a total of 1,027 prisoners for Sergent Gilad Schalit, who was
captured by Gaza militants in June 2006. Schalit returned home
in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners.
Yesterday`s release of 550 prisoners completed the swap,
the most lopsided in Israel`s history.
The release last night was not infused with the same
drama as the first phase, since the most significant players
in the trade had already been freed.
The October 18 return of Schalit, who appeared pale and
thin but otherwise healthy, was the first public sighting of
him since his capture, and the plight of the young man had
captured Israel`s attention for years.
The prisoners freed in the first round included dozens of
militants serving life sentences for involvement in bus
bombings and other deadly attacks on Israeli civilians that
killed hundreds. Their release set off celebrations in the
Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas` Gaza stronghold.
The release took place quietly under the cover of
darkness, as most of the prisoners descended from buses and
made their way into the West Bank and Gaza.
In Gaza, hundreds of well-wishers greeted the freed
prisoners by waving Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the
air. "I am so glad that I am back, this is a real victory,"
said released prisoner Kamal Madheem, 40.
Yesterday, Israel`s Supreme Court rejected a last-minute
appeal by an Israeli group representing families of victims of Palestinian violence to block the release. The group argued that lopsided swaps encourage Palestinians to carry out more attacks and abductions.
"We managed to get 20 per cent of our prisoners released
from Israeli jails in exchange for one soldier," Hamas
spokesman Abu Obeida said in Gaza.
"We are going to continue our efforts to get all
prisoners released," he said.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners
to be freed here yesterday. Prison officials said most were
serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza.
More than 500 were sent to the West Bank, which is ruled
by Hamas` rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them
were believed to be linked to Abbas` Fatah movement. Israel is
interested in bolstering Abbas at a time when Islamic groups
like Hamas are gaining in power throughout the Middle East.
Hamas enjoyed a huge boost of popularity following the October