Israel, Hamas swap prisoners

Israeli and Hamas officials have agreed on a prisoner-swap deal to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity in the Gaza Strip for five years.

After an emergency Cabinet meeting on Tuesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a nationally televised announcement that the historic deal had been struck. He said the captured soldier would be returning home “in the coming days”.

Netanyahu said he understood the pain of Israeli families who had lost loved ones to violence, but had reached “the best deal we could get” given the turmoil in the region.

The deal will bring home Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 by Palestinian militants, who entered Israel and dragged him into Gaza. His capture has been a central justification for Israel’s five-year blockade of Gaza.

Little has been known about his fate since then. Shalit’s father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure through a campaign to win his son’s freedom, leading demonstrations and sleeping in a tent outside Netanyahu’s residence. Dozens of Israelis converged on the tent this week to offer support to the family.

Abu Abadia, spokesperson for the military wing of Hamas, told Israeli media that in terms of the deal Israel would release 1 000 Palestinian prisoners. They included 15 high-security inmates said to have been directly involved in terror attacks and 200 who would not be permitted to return to the West Bank.

A source involved in the talks told Reuters the deal called for freeing the prisoners in a two-stage arrangement, the first stage involving the release of 450 for the soldier and the remaining 550 afterwards.

Details of how the deal was reached have not yet been confirmed, but it is understood that both Egyptian and German diplomats played a significant role in the negotiations.

German mediator Gerard Conrad is reported to have flown into Cairo last week for a meeting that lasted several days during which he was scheduled to meet with several senior Egyptian officials. In previous negotiations, Conrad has proved successful in ironing out many ­differences of opinion that prevented a deal being reached.

These stumbling blocks included the number of Palestinian militants to be released, how many of those would be exiled from the West Bank following their release and the period over which they would be freed. —

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