Schalit free in Israel-Palestinian prisoner swap

October 18th, 2011 by Staff

www.cbsnews.com – TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel – After five years as a captive of Hamas militants, Israeli Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit returned to his homeland Tuesday in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Schalit landed at Tel Nof air base on board a military helicopter Tuesday, where he would be reunited with his family, who led an emotional campaign to win their son’s release during his captivity.

Ahead of the reunion, Schalit switched out of civilian clothes given to him by Hamas and into an Israeli military uniform.

Earlier, Schalit gave a brief interview to Egyptian TV. Looking thin, weary and dazed, he said he was “very excited to taste freedom” and that he had missed his family and friends. He said he feared he would remain in captivity “many more years” and worried since being told of the deal last week that last-minute hitches might cause it to collapse.

“Of course I missed my family. I missed friends, meeting people to talk to people, and not to sit all day, to do the same things,” he said.

Schalit’s physical appearance raised questions about the condition of his captivity in the hands of the Hamas militant group. The 25-year-old appeared pale and gaunt, shifted in his seat, struggled to breathe and seemed to mumble as he answered the questions.

Later, Israeli TV stations showed him being helped into an army jeep after crossing the border into Israel. And military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in good condition.

Hamas agreed to release Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of them serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.

When Tuesday’s exchange is complete, 477 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including 27 women, will have been released, several of them after decades behind bars. The other 550 are set to be released in two months.

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reported that to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group which controls Gaza, the prisoner swap deal is being portrayed as a great victory by a lopsided score: 1,027 to 1.

Some of those prisoners caused carnage in Israel. Included among the prisoners is: Abdel Aziz Salha, who helped kill two Israeli soldiers who made a wrong turn on the West Bank and were stabbed to death; Nasser Yateima, who planned a 2002 hotel bombing that killed 30 people celebrating Passover; and Awana Jawad Mona, who seduced a sixteen year old Israeli boy over the internet to come meet her. That boy, Ofir Rahum, was shot and killed when he arrived.

But Israelis also portrayed the swap as a victory.

“After a five-year nightmare held in medieval conditions, and with no access to the Red Cross, … Schalit will finally be home today,” said Marcus Sheff, head of The Israel Project’s Jerusalem office. “Israeli society’s commitment to Schalit’s safe return has not wavered; Nor has Israel’s obligation to protect its citizens from terrorism”

The arrivals of the Palestinian prisoners set off ecstatic celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large crowds and dignitaries greeted them.

In Gaza, prisoners embraced and shook hands with Hamas leaders at the Rafah border crossing. Some prisoners were carried on the shoulders of others. Palestinian dignitaries formed a reception line, like at a wedding, shaking hands and in some cases hugging the prisoners.

In the West Bank, released prisoners were taken to the grave of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them, and several thousand people filled the courtyard outside his headquarters to celebrate.

“We thank God for your return and your safety,” Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.”

But the return was marred by violence at a crossing between the West Bank and Israel. Military officials said troops fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that began to riot because of delays in the release. No injuries were reported.

The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps a five-and-a-half-year saga that has seen multiple Israeli military offensives in Gaza, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of failed negotiations.

While opinion polls show most Israeli’s are prepared to hold their nose and accept the deal, some are not, especially people like Ron Kehrmann and others who lost members of their families in terror attacks and who call the deal a surrender.

The arrivals of the Palestinian prisoners set off ecstatic celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large crowds and dignitaries greeted them.

In Gaza, prisoners embraced and shook hands with Hamas leaders at the Rafah border crossing. Some prisoners were carried on the shoulders of others. Palestinian dignitaries formed a reception line, like at a wedding, shaking hands and in some cases hugging the prisoners.

In the West Bank, released prisoners were taken to the grave of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them, and several thousand people filled the courtyard outside his headquarters to celebrate.

“We thank God for your return and your safety,” Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.”

But the return was marred by violence at a crossing between the West Bank and Israel. Military officials said troops fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that began to riot because of delays in the release. No injuries were reported.

The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps a five-and-a-half-year saga that has seen multiple Israeli military offensives in Gaza, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of failed negotiations.

While opinion polls show most Israeli’s are prepared to hold their nose and accept the deal, some are not, especially people like Ron Kehrmann and others who lost members of their families in terror attacks and who call the deal a surrender.


Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment. You are free to voice your opinion but please keep it clean. Any comments using profanity will be rejected.