GAZA/JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel’s borders in opposite directions yesterday as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.
In one of the biggest such exchanges between the two sides, Sergeant Shalit was flown to his parents’ home in northern Israel after more than five years held incommunicado by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while a first 477 of over 1,000 Palestinians in the deal left Israeli jails for Gaza, the West Bank and abroad.
Hundreds of flag-waving wellwishers lined the streets of Shalit’s rural home town. Many danced as a ceremonial shofar horn was blown when he arrived at nightfall after a day that he began, as nearly 2,000 before, hidden away somewhere in Gaza.
In the Palestinian coastal enclave, Hamas’s Islamist leaders claimed vindication for uncompromising hostility toward Israel that, on Tuesday at least, overshadowed the efforts of rivals led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
“I missed my family very much,” a gaunt Shalit, his breathing laboured at times, said in an interview with Egyptian television as he was moved through Egypt from Gaza. “I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But there was no sign from Israel or Hamas, an Islamist group dedicated to its destruction, that the Egyptian-brokered deal could be a starting point for dialogue.
“The people want a new Gilad, the people want a new Gilad,” tens of thousands of people chanted at a rally in Gaza for freed prisoners, urging that their fighters capture more soldiers to help free some of the 5,000 Palestinians still held by Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcoming Shalit home, warned the former prisoners they would be “taking their life into their own hands” if they “returned to terror”.
Defending a deal that left a bittersweet aftertaste in Israel, Netanyahu said he felt the pain of the relatives of Israelis killed by some of the Palestinians released, but saving a soldier from captivity was a Jewish Biblical imperative.
“It is a difficult day,” he said, describing the price Israel paid for Shalit’s release as high.
Shalit was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and driven to Israel’s Kerem Shalom – Vineyard of Peace – border crossing, from where a helicopter flew him to an Israeli air base for a reunion with his parents.
Simultaneously Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip and many serving life terms for attacks that killed Israelis. Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.
Under the terms of the deal, 40 of those who had been jailed for involvement in deadly attacks were being deported from Palestinian territory. Turkey confirmed it would take in around 10, while others were destined for Syria and Qatar.
Egypt helped to mediate the long-awaited deal, and its army-backed interim government has sought to revive a role as a diplomatic linchpin in the Middle East.
Palestinians, awaiting the release of prisoners at a West Bank checkpoint, hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, after the military announced to the crowd over a loudspeaker that the group had been taken to another crossing.