Israel swaps more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for soldier

JERUSALEM/GAZA Wed Oct 12, 2011 1:42pm EDT

Israelis react near a protest tent outside the residence of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem October 12, 2011. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israelis react near a protest tent outside the residence of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem October 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - The parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit folded their protest tent on Wednesday and Palestinian families awaited word on whether their loved ones would go free in a prisoner swap agreed by Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers.

The deal, reached five years after Shalit, then 19, was captured by Palestinian militants who tunneled into Israel and spirited him across the frontier into the Gaza Strip, stirred mixed emotions.

There was widespread joy in Israel that one of its sons would be coming home under an Egyptian and German-brokered agreement announced as households prepared for Sukkot, a festival commemorating the Jews' Biblical wanderings in the wilderness.

But the price to be paid -- freedom for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including, Hamas said, more than 300 serving life terms for violent attacks -- stoked security concerns in Israel.

"The release of terrorists is a message that is simple: abductions pay off. Terror pays," said Uzi Landau, a right-wing minister who did not back the deal in a 29-3 vote in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet on Tuesday.

In the Gaza Strip, where celebratory gunfire greeted the deal, the family of Hassan Salama, a Hamas member, waited anxiously to hear whether he was on the release roster.

Salama was jailed for life for masterminding suicide bombings that killed 70 Israelis in 1996.

"We are being cautious until the last moment. Israel can retreat at any time," said his brother, Mohammed, of a deal Palestinian militant groups hailed as a victory.

CONCERN

Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, took down the protest tent they erected months ago near Netanyahu's Jerusalem home to press him to do more to bring their son home.

"Now we are waiting with concern for the moment when we will see Gilad with us," Noam Shalit told Israeli President Shimon Peres, who hosted the family at his official residence in the city.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have visited social media websites, which were in their infancy when tank crewman Shalit was grabbed, to push their government not to make a deal with Hamas, a group sworn to Israel's destruction.

It appeared an exchange would not get under way before early next week. Under Israeli law the Palestinian prisoners' names must be published 48 hours ahead of their release to allow legal appeals against granting them liberty. Israel's Justice Ministry said it intended to publish the list no later than Sunday.

Hamas and its supporters in the Gaza Strip have threatened to seize more Israeli soldiers until all 6,000 Palestinian prisoners are freed from Israeli jails.

The deal resolves one of the most emotive and intractable issues between Israel and the Palestinians, but has no obvious direct effect on peace negotiations which have been stalled for the past year, apart from potentially improving the climate for a resumption as urged by Washington and its allies.

The breakthrough pact was achieved after many false dawns in years of secret efforts to free Shalit, who was captured a year after Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israel tightened its Gaza blockade after he was seized and again after Hamas took over the enclave from a rival movement in 2007.

Yoram Cohen, chief of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, said he believed Hamas opted for a deal now because it hoped to strengthen its ties with Egypt at a time of unrest and uncertainty in Syria, where the group has its headquarters.

One official involved in the talks said negotiators will be in Cairo over the weekend to decide on the release process.

Cohen told reporters that 450 prisoners would be released, simultaneously with Shalit, in a first stage and the rest would be freed two months later.

According to his breakdown, 110 in the first group would go home to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 131 would return to the Gaza Strip. Six people who hold Israeli citizenship were also on the list.

Cohen said 203 prisoners whose families were in the West Bank would be exiled to the Gaza Strip or abroad. The move appeared to be an attempt by Israel to prevent Hamas from regrouping in the territory, controlled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Two of the most widely known Palestinian militants jailed in Israel are not part of the swap, Cohen said. They are Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction who is serving five life prison terms for murder, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the murder of Israel's tourism minister in 2001.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alistair Lyon)