Israel, Hamas agree to huge prisoner exchange

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 11, 2011 

JERUSALEM — Israeli and the Palestinian group Hamas agreed Tuesday to a vast prisoner exchange that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the largest release ever of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Israeli officials declined to provide the names of the more than 1,000 Palestinians to be released but told reporters that Marwan Barghouti, a former candidate for the Palestinian presidency who's serving five life terms on terrorism convictions, would not be among them. Ahmed Saadat, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whom the Israelis blame for the 2001 assassination of their tourism minister, was also rumored to be among those who might be released.

The release of Shalit would end a drama that's riveted Israel since June 25, 2006, when a squad of Palestinian militants crossed into Israel from Gaza and seized the then 19-year-old Shalit, who was a private in the army standing guard at a desert outpost.

Since then, Shalit's confinement has become part of the national consciousness. Blue and white stickers with his image and the words "Free Gilad Shalit" are a common sight on cars and street corners. Photos of Shalit, still a teenager and looking wistfully into the camera, are often held at political events and protests calling on Israel's government to negotiate his release.

Israel's Cabinet met late Tuesday to hold an emergency vote on the terms of the prisoner exchange. Approval was expected.

"Today it was finally summarized and both sides signed," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "If all goes according to plan, Gilad will be returning to Israel in the coming days."

In Gaza, officials from Hamas' military wing also said the deal would be carried out "within a week."

"We have been heartened and strengthened by the support for our son. The people of this country pray for him to come home as if Gilad was their son. His return is all of our prayers," said Noam Shalit, Gilad's father.

Footage of the family anxiously awaiting news on the exchange deal was broadcast Tuesday night on Israeli television.

Hundreds of people swarmed to the tents outside the prime minister's residence where the Shalit family has been living for nearly two years in protest of Gilad Shalit's captivity. As news emerged that the Cabinet would vote in favor of the deal, Shalit's mother, Aviva, could be seen smiling and excitedly hugging visiting friends and supporters.

She said, however, that she wouldn't be "fully happy until Gilad" was standing before her.

In Gaza, thousands also took to the streets to celebrate the news that more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners would be released.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the Palestinians had achieved "99 percent of the goal."

The inclusion of Barghouti and Saadat in the exchange would certainly draw attention on the Palestinian side.

Barghouti is considered one of the most popular figures on the Palestinian political scene. First arrested by the Israelis as a teenager, Barghouti, now 52, is credited with leading the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, and he playing a key role in the second uprising, which began in 2000.

He's reported to have fallen out with the late Yasser Arafat, the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, over corruption, and in 2005 he registered to run for Palestinian Authority president from prison, where he'd been since 2002. A document he wrote in 2006 is considered a blueprint for ending the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, Arafat's political movement, which runs the West Bank.

Sadaat, who's about 57, was jailed by the Palestinian Authority in Jericho in 2001 in a deal that ended an Israeli siege of Arafat's headquarters. Israel raided the prison in 2006 and brought him to Israel, where he was sentenced in 2008 to 30 years for leading a terrorist organization.

Negotiations for the exchange were in Cairo, and were moderated by French and German negotiators.

Just hours before the announcement that the deal seemed imminent, Israeli officials quietly issued an apology to Egypt over a cross-border raid this summer that killed three Egyptian soldiers. Israeli officials confirmed that the incident had led to "ongoing tensions" between Egypt and Israel that had delayed the final meetings for a deal on Shalit's release.

Reports from Egypt said Shalit would be moved to Cairo while the transfer of the Palestinian prisoners was under way. Shalit then would be transferred to Israel and reunited with his family.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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