Hamas Frees Israeli Soldier as Prisoner Swap Begins
The New York Times - International Herald Tribune
JERUSALEM — The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas on Tuesday released an Israeli soldier it captured more than five years ago as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel waited on buses to start their journey to freedom in the West Bank, Gaza and exile through Egypt in an elaborate exchange.
The Israeli soldier, Sergeant First Class Gilad Shalit, was taken from Gaza into Egyptian territory in the early morning in the company of Egyptian and Red Cross officials. He was to be transferred into Israel and taken by helicopter to an air base south of Tel Aviv where top officials — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the military chief of staff — and his family awaited his arrival. Hamas officials in Gaza said that they had handed Sergeant Shalit over to the Egyptians. Mosque loudspeakers awakened the Gaza populace at dawn with cries of “God is great” and “Victory to God.” Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told Al-Jazeera television that the first step of the agreement was complete. Speaking from the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, Mr. Barhoum warned Israel against “maneuvering or playing with any article of the agreement.” He added that Egyptian mediators assured Hamas that they would not allow Israel to violate the agreement. Throngs of excited Palestinians awaited the prisoners, 477 on Tuesday who are expected to be joined by another 550 in two months. Two women prisoners due to be sent to Gaza were demanding instead to be sent to Egypt, possibly delaying the procedure. At Rafah, the mother of one of the men who captured Sergeant Shalit in June 2006 arrived with his photograph. Her son, Mohammad Azmi Firwana, 23, from Khan Younis, was killed in the operation. “I have come to greet the prisoners because they are all like my sons and daughters,” said the woman, Ahlam Firwana. “We have not got Mohammad’s body back yet. We have heard nothing.” The plan was for Sergeant Shalit — who had recently been promoted from staff sergeant to sergeant first class — to be given a fresh Israeli uniform and a quick medical check before being brought to the base where an out-of-use F-15 warplane stood sentry at the entrance and signs with his image lined the road, proclaiming, “How good that you have come home.” The mechanics of the deal were complex but apparently moved smoothly just after dawn. Israeli officials began to gather at an air force base south of Tel Aviv where Sergeant Shalit, 25, was expected to be brought after being transferred from Gaza into Egyptian territory. Israeli television showed the Shalit family leaving their home in northern Israel to be taken by helicopter to the base, Tel Nof. In Gaza, the Hamas-run government took busloads of journalists in a tightly controlled media operation to the Rafah Crossing with Egypt shortly after dawn on Tuesday. Armed members of Hamas’s militant wing, the Qassam Brigades, lined the main highway to the crossing where the prisoners were to be released. They were wearing black and green bandanas and balaclavas. Some carried Kalashnikov assault rifles while others bore rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the guards — at some points posted every 15 feet — had apparently been deployed to forestall disruptions. At the crossing, a tent had been set up for Hamas dignitaries and family members to greet the returning prisoners before the hour-long journey to Gaza City. A celebratory rally was planned at Brigades Park in one of Gaza’s largest open spaces where a stage has been erected for the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, to address the crowd and publicly welcome the returnees. One of the returning prisoners, Yehya Sinwar, a co-founder of an early security wing of Hamas, is also scheduled to speak. Along the length of Salahuddin Street, the main north-south road that runs the length of the Gaza Strip, Hamas activists attached Islamist banners to streetlights on Monday, welcoming home the 131 Gaza returnees from among 477 Palestinian prisoners being released by Israel. Another 550 are to be released in two months’ time. Both Israel and the divided Palestinian leadership — Fatah runs the West Bank while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip — were making elaborate preparations for the handover, which will end five years in captivity for Sergeant Shalit; hundreds of the Palestinians have been held much longer. Rafah is the Gaza of Gaza — isolated, poor and, for years, all but cut off from the rest of the coastal strip during the era of Israeli settlements here, which ended in 2005.
The community is not just where the Shalit saga was to end, barring a last-minute change, but it was also where it began. In June 2006, Hamas and two other militant factions mounted a surprise raid on an Israeli military post at Kerem Shalom, after having dug a long tunnel beneath the Rafah sands under the border, capturing Sergeant Shalit. He has not been seen in public since.
If all goes as planned, he will be the first captured Israeli soldier to be returned home alive in 26 years.