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Israel and Hamas carried out an unprecedented prisoner swap on Tuesday, freeing Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit after five years in captivity as some 477 Palestinian prisoners were released to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Egypt.
The dramatic exchange, which kept Israelis and Palestinians on edge until the final moment of the swap, marks a milestone in the relations between the two sworn enemies.
Sergeant Shalit’s abduction prompted Israel to tighten its blockade on the Gaza Strip, and his release removes a bone of contention that destabilized the volatile border.
Looking emaciated, exhausted, and wearing a black baseball cap, Shalit emerged from imprisonment at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. He was accompanied by the chief of Hamas’s military wing, Ahmed Jaberi, according to Israeli state-run television's Channel 1.
He was later handed over to Israeli military representatives and crossed back to Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing, located at the intersection of Israel, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip. He later flew by helicopter to the Tel Nof military base where he was reunited with his family.
"Gilad Shalit has returned home more than five years after the mission he embarked on," said Israel's chief army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, adding that Shalit is in good health.
"I’m moved,’’ he told Egyptian television, his voice faltering in an interview before returning to Israel. "I hope the deal with advance peace and there won’t be clashes between Israelis and the Palestinians."
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.