Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers released captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Tuesday in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a Hamas military source said, in a deal ending a saga that has gripped Israel for five years.
The source said Shalit, 25, was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where he was handed over to Egyptian officials, who were due to take him to Israel’s nearby Vineyard of Peace border crossing.
There was no immediate confirmation from Israel or Egypt.
In a carefully choreographed swap, Israel was due to release 477 Palestinian prisoners during the day, some of whom were put on buses ready for transfer to Gaza, which is run by Hamas. Other were set to be freed in the occupied West Bank.
Israel will release a further 550 prisoners in a second stage of the Egyptian-brokered agreement, expected in about two months.
“This is the greatest joy for the Palestinian people,” said Azzia al-Qawasmeh, awaiting at a West Bank checkpoint for her son Amer, who she said had been in prison for 24 years.
Fire-crackers, fluttering flags and honking car horns marked an early start to celebrations in the city of Gaza, where young men converged on a central square for a mass rally to await speeches by prominent prisoners and Hamas leaders.
The mood in Israel was also one of elation.
Shalit has been popularly portrayed as “everyone’s son” and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the thousand-for-one deal, although many of the prisoners going free were convicted of deadly attacks.
“I am happy this day has come. Gilad will soon return to you,” an official statement quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling Shalit’s parents at an airbase in central Israel, where the soldier will be flown later.
For Palestinians, it was a time to celebrate what Hamas hailed as a victory, and a heroes’ welcome awaited the released prisoners. Palestinians see brethren jailed by Israel as prisoners of war in a struggle for statehood.
The deal received a green light from Israel’s Supreme Court late on Monday after it rejected petitions from the public to prevent the mass release of prisoners, many serving life sentences for deadly attacks.
Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He has since been held incommunicado and was last seen looking pale and thin in a 2009 video shot by his captors.
The repatriation of captured soldiers, alive or dead, has long been an emotionally charged issue for Israelis. Many have served in the military as conscripts and see it as sacrosanct. But they also feel stung by the high price they feel Israel is paying for Shalit.
“I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families.
As part of the deal, Hamas agreed with an Israeli demand that 40 of those freed on Tuesday should be sent into exile, with Turkey, Syria and Qatar agreeing to take in the Palestinians.
Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the coastal territory after Shalit was seized and taken there.
The deal with Hamas, a group classified by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, is not expected to have a direct impact on efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, is seeking U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in the absence of negotiations which collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
(Additional reporting by Rami Amichai, Ronen Zvulun, Ari Rabinovitch, Nidal al-Mughrabi Douglas Hamilton, Mohammed Salem and Tom Perry; Writing by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Crispian Balmer)
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