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At the same crossing point – not far from where Shalit was abducted in June 2006 when his tank was ambushed – Israel released several hundred Palestinian prisoners to Egypt en route to Gaza. The Palestinian prisoners were embraced at the Rafah terminal by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and family members. Hamas had planned a celebration in Gaza City for later Tuesday.
The other large group of prisoners were released to the West Bank city of Ramallah, and were welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. About 40 Palestinians deported under the deal were handed over to Egypt en route to Turkey, Qatar, and Syria, Israel Radio reported. Under the deal, Israel also released several Palestinians with residency in east Jerusalem and several Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
In the past, Israel officials had justified the blockade as a way of pressuring Hamas. Israel’s state-run radio quoted government officials who said that the blockade would remain in place because of concern that Hamas is engaged in a military build up.
Another 550 prisoners are expected to be released within months, as the second half of the deal.
The deal is expected to boost the prestige of Hamas among Palestinians after a period of sagging popularity because of the continuing hardship in Gaza. The organization has also been under pressure because of the revolt in Syria that has threatened the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a patron of the Islamic militant rulers of Gaza.
For Israel the deal was the latest in a string of lopsided exchanges going back nearly three decades to the swaps with militant groups during the Lebanon war. Though it received overwhelming support from Israelis, it stirred up a debate about the release of militants who have carried out some of the worst terrorist attacks against civilians over the last 20 years.
The deal also marks a boost for the regional prestige of Egypt’s interim military government, which mediated between Israel and Hamas after years of unsuccessful efforts by Germany. Media in both Israel and Egypt have reported that the swap could be followed up by an exchange for Ilan Grappel, a law student with Israel and US citizenship arrested in Egypt earlier this year on spy charges.