Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in the second and final phase of a swap with Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.
Under the Egypt-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange 1,027 prisoners for Sergeant Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006. Sgt Schalit returned home in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners. Last night’s release of 550 more completed the swap, the most lopsided in Israel’s history.
The release was not infused with the same drama as the first phase, since the most significant players in the trade had already been freed.
The October 18 return of Sgt Schalit, who appeared pale and thin but otherwise healthy, was the first public sighting of him since his capture, and the plight of the young man had captured Israel’s attention for years. He has mostly stayed out of the public eye since returning home.
The prisoners freed in the first round included dozens of militants serving life sentences for involvement in bus bombings and other deadly attacks on Israeli civilians that killed hundreds.
Their release set off celebrations in the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas’s Gaza stronghold.
The release took place quietly under the cover of darkness, as most of the prisoners descended from buses and made their way into the West Bank and Gaza.
In Gaza, hundreds of well-wishers greeted the freed prisoners by waving Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the air. “I am so glad that I am back, this is a real victory,” said released prisoner Kamal Madheem, 40.
“We managed to get 20% of our prisoners released from Israeli jails in exchange for one soldier,” Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said in Gaza. “We are going to continue our efforts to get all prisoners released.”
In Ramallah, large crowds greeted the prisoners with cheers. Relatives hugged their loved ones and waved Palestinian flags. Some called for militants to abduct more Israelis.
Saida Suleiman was welcoming back her son who was jailed for 18 months for throwing fire bombs at Israelis. “I am so happy, I don’t want more happiness than this,” she said.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners to be freed on Sunday. Prison officials said most were serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza.
More than 500 were sent to the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas’s rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them were believed to be linked to Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement.
Israel is interested in bolstering Mr Abbas at a time when Islamic groups like Hamas are gaining power throughout the Middle East. Hamas enjoyed a huge boost of popularity following the October release.
A few hours earlier, a large group of Palestinians threw rocks and fire bombs at Israeli troops at the West Bank checkpoint near the city of Ramallah, where the prisoners were released. The military said one soldier was injured.
The Palestinians have been divided between two rival governments since Hamas expelled Mr Abbas’s forces and seized control of Gaza in 2007. Mr Abbas, who favours a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, has governed only in the West Bank since then.
“This phase of the swap is shallow, because most of those coming out had served short sentences,” said Issa Karake, the prisoners affairs minister in the West Bank government. “It did not live up to the expectations of the Palestinians.”
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement welcomed the release of all prisoners, regardless of their political affiliation. “We are proud of this great achievement,” he said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen for three years, in part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as parts of a future state.
On Sunday, Israel’s housing ministry published advertisements seeking contractors to build 1,000 apartments in both areas. The apartments were approved long ago.