Hamas Frees Israeli Soldier as Prisoner Swap Begins

An Israeli soldier held for more than five years by the militant Palestinian group Hamas was traded on Tuesday for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in an elaborate exchange that could shake up regional politics.

Buses containing the Palestinian prisoners — the first group of what will eventually be more than 1,000 — made their way into Egypt and from there to the West Bank and Gaza Strip where jubilant relatives awaited and celebrations were planned.

The soldier, Sergeant First Class Gilad Shalit, was taken from Gaza, where he had been held since being abducted in a cross-border raid in 2006, into Egypt and from there to Israel, where he was given a quick medical check and declared in good health. He changed into a military uniform before being flown by helicopter to an Israeli military base where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was reunited with his family.

“Today we are all united in joy and in pain,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a televised address from the air base shortly after.

Sergeant Shalit was interviewed on Egyptian television before being handed over to Israel. Sitting in a blue checked shirt and speaking Hebrew, he smiled and reflected on the questions before answering them. He looked thin and pale but appeared otherwise healthy.

Asked if he had feared that he would never get out, Sergeant Shalit answered that he worried it would take many more years although in the past month he suspected a deal was in the works. He said he was told of his release a week ago.

Asked what he missed most in prison, he replied, “My family and my friends and seeing and talking with people. The worst was having to do the same thing every day over and over.”

He was told that Israel still had thousands of prisoners and was asked if he would like them released. “I will be happy for them to be released if they don’t return to fight us,” he said. “I very much hope that this deal will advance peace.”

The chief spokesman of the Israeli military, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, told reporters after Sergeant Shalit was handed over to Israelis, “Not far from here, Gilad’s tank was attacked and two armored corps soldiers were killed. In the same area, Gilad Shalit, accompanied by the commander of the south is at this moment being brought to the Amitai base. There he will have medical checks but before that he will talk with his family.”

Egyptian television showed Sergeant Shalit being rushed through the Rafah crossing terminal from Gaza into Egypt accompanied by Hamas and Egyptian officials.

Soon afterward, an Israeli military statement said: “Gilad Shalit crossed the border into Israel, ending over five years in captivity.”

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told Al-Jazeera television that the first step of the agreement was complete. Speaking from the Rafah crossing point, Mr. Barhoum warned Israel against “maneuvering or playing with any article of the agreement.” He added that Egyptian mediators assured Hamas that they would not allow Israel to violate the agreement.

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Throngs of excited Palestinians woke to mosque loudspeakers crying “God is great” and “Victory to God” as they awaited the arrival of buses carrying the 477 prisoners on Tuesday. Another 550 are expected to be released in two months. Two women prisoners due to be sent to Gaza were demanding instead to be sent to Egypt.

Dozens of returnees began arriving in Ramallah in the West Bank where they were to attend a reception given by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Although the exchange was negotiated by his rivals in Hamas, the release of prisoners was a source of national celebration.

At Rafah, the mother of one of the men who captured Sergeant Shalit in June 2006 arrived with his photograph. Her son, Mohammad Azmi Firwana, 23, from Khan Younis, was killed in the operation.

“I have come to greet the prisoners because they are all like my sons and daughters,” said the woman, Ahlam Firwana. “We have not got Mohammad’s body back yet. We have heard nothing.”

After his medical check, Sergeant Shalit — who had recently been promoted from staff sergeant to sergeant first class — was brought to the Tel Nof air force base south of Tel Aviv, where he was met by Mr. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the military chief of staff. His family was there with him as well.

Earlier in the day, as Israeli officials began to gather there, Israeli television showed the Shalit family leaving their home in northern Israel to be taken by helicopter to the base, where an out-of-use F-15 warplane stood sentry at the entrance and signs with his image lined the road, proclaiming, “How good that you have come home.”

The mechanics of the deal were complex but apparently moved smoothly just after dawn.

In Gaza, the Hamas-run government took busloads of journalists in a tightly controlled media operation to the Rafah Crossing with Egypt shortly after dawn on Tuesday. Armed members of Hamas’s militant wing, the Qassam Brigades, lined the main highway to the crossing where the prisoners were to be released. They were wearing black and green bandanas and balaclavas. Some carried Kalashnikov assault rifles while others bore rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the guards — at some points posted every 15 feet — had apparently been deployed to forestall disruptions. A celebratory rally was planned at Brigades Park in one of Gaza’s largest open spaces where a stage has been erected for the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, to address the crowd and publicly welcome the returnees.

One of the returning prisoners, Yehya Sinwar, a co-founder of an early security wing of Hamas, is also scheduled to speak.

The buses carrying the prisoners drove through a huge crowd of Hamas police and a drum band and honor guard. The freed prisoners got off the buses one by one and ran a gantlet of people who cheered them, held up camera phones, saluted and patted them on the back. Some were given sashes with the Palestinian colors.

Along the length of Salahuddin Street, the main north-south road that runs the length of the Gaza Strip, Hamas activists attached Islamist banners to streetlights on Monday, welcoming home the 131 Gaza returnees from among Palestinian prisoners being released by Israel.

Both Israel and the divided Palestinian leadership — Fatah runs the West Bank while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip — were making elaborate preparations for the handover, which will end five years in captivity for Sergeant Shalit; hundreds of the Palestinians have been held much longer. Rafah is the Gaza of Gaza — isolated, poor and, for years, all but cut off from the rest of the coastal strip during the era of Israeli settlements here, which ended in 2005.

The community is not just where the Shalit saga was to end, barring a last-minute change, but it was also where it began. In June 2006, Hamas and two other militant factions mounted a surprise raid on an Israeli military post at Kerem Shalom, after having dug a long tunnel beneath the Rafah sands under the border, capturing Sergeant Shalit. He has not been seen in public since.

He was the first captured Israeli soldier to be returned home alive in 26 years.

In Israel, there were elaborate preparations for his return, a calibrated mix of relieved celebration and acknowledgment — both of the pain and death that the released Palestinians caused many families and of the risk that their release may pose.

Several petitions to block or alter the exchange were rejected by Israel’s high court on Monday. The scene at the courtroom was emotionally charged, with some families who lost members in terrorist attacks assailing the Shalit family and the government.

Prime Minister Netanyahu sent letters to the bereaved families saying he understood their heartache.

“I know that the price is very heavy for you,” he wrote in the letters. “I understand the difficulty to countenance that the evil people who perpetrated the appalling crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price that they deserve. During these moments I hope that you will find solace that I and the entire nation of Israel embrace you and share your pain.”

After a more extensive medical examination and some time with the officials and his family, Sergeant Shalit and his family are to be transported by helicopter to their home in northern Israel. Reporters and onlookers will be barred from his neighborhood to give the family a measure of privacy. Chiefs of major Israeli news organizations vowed to respect the restrictions.

With a hammer in his hand, Hussein al-Rifi, 20, paused on Monday while hanging flags in Gaza to say that he was happy to help with the preparations, “to show the people that Hamas still exists in Gaza and to make the happiness of the prisoners complete.”

As he spoke, a bulldozer was smoothing the sandy ridges that run on each side of the highway to beautify the route. Later, five numbered buses arrived at the barred crossing gates at Rafah, ready to pick up the released prisoners; they were followed by a busload of Hamas police officers to form an honor guard.

In the West Bank, President Abbas was to greet the prisoners to be released there at a ceremony in Ramallah. Though the exchange was negotiated by his rivals in Hamas, Mr. Abbas was expected to try to make it as much of a nonpartisan Palestinian achievement as possible.

Atallah Abu al-Sebah, Hamas’s minister of prisoners’ affairs, said the prisoners released in Gaza would first be greeted inside the Rafah crossing by 200 officials and up to four members of each prisoner’s family. There would be a “short official reception,” including the Palestinian national anthem.

Mr. Sebah said that any prisoners who needed accommodation, including those who did not have families in the strip, would be put up in hotels for one month, irrespective of whether they were associated with Hamas, Fatah or other factions. They would then be moved to apartments being prepared for them around Gaza.

“We call upon our Palestinian people to put our brothers from the West Bank in their hearts and eyes, regardless of their affiliation,” he said. “It is enough that they belong to Palestine.”

Ethan Bronner reported from Jerusalem, and Stephen Farrell from Gaza. Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza, Khaled Abu-Aker from the West Bank, and Isabel Kershner from Tel Nof air force base.