Israel and Hamas have reached a tentative agreement on a proposal brokered by Egypt to exchange Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held captive for more than five years, both sides said Tuesday. The Israeli cabinet was meeting in emergency session to discuss it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who summoned all 29 Cabinet ministers to vote on the agreement concerning the fate of the captive soldier, Staff. Sgt. Gilad Shalit, went on Israeli television beforehand to announce it, a sign that he was confident of Cabinet approval.
“If all goes according to plan, Gilad will be returning to Israel in the coming days,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Ali Baraka, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said an agreement was reached through indirect negotiations conducted by Egypt. He said Sergeant Shalit would be freed under terms of the exchange but did not specify when. Osama Hamdan, another Hamas representative in Lebanon, said Khaled Meshal, the Syrian-based Hamas leader, was planning to speak about the agreement later.
Al Arabiya, the satellite network, first reported that Egyptian mediators had made a breakthrough in the prisoner-swap negotiations, and that the exchange for Sergeant Shalit could happen as early as November.
One Israeli official said that Mr. Netanyahu had already met with his most senior ministers to review the names of hundreds of Hamas prisoners to be released.
Sergeant Shalit was seized in a cross-border raid by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in June 2006, and was taken into Gaza. He was 19 at the time, and efforts to end his prolonged incarceration in Gaza have become an emotional cause in Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu said he had telephoned the Shalit family in the morning and told them he was fulfilling his promise to bring home their son and grandson.
Mr. Netanyahu said that the upheavals in the Arab world made it important to move forward now since in the future it might be impossible to conclude such a deal.
“With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal – or any deal at all for that matter,” he said. “This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”
It was not immediately clear exactly how many Palestinians would be freed under the exchange, but word of the deal was greeted enthusiastically in Gaza, where motorists honked their horns in celebration.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian group regarded by Israel as a terrorist organization, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and then took full control of Gaza in 2007, routing the Palestinian Authority forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Palestinian group Fatah. Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza to isolate Hamas since, though it has eased some restrictions on imports.
A prisoner exchange deal had seemed close in late 2009, but the talks collapsed. Israel and Hamas each accused the other of failing to reach agreement. Israel has expressed readiness for a prisoner exchange, but has in the past balked at releasing some of those demanded by Hamas, including those whom Israel has convicted as planners and perpetrators of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent years.
Two years ago, Israel released 20 Palestinian women from its jails in exchange for a videotape of Sergeant Shalit that proved he was alive.
The Israeli government is under constant pressure to arrange the soldier’s release. Despite the popular support here for some kind of a deal, many also have qualms about releasing some of the most notorious prisoners.
Tens of thousands of Israelis joined the Shalit family in the summer of 2010 for parts of a 12-day march from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem to draw attention to their son’s plight. Since then, the soldier’s parents have spent many of their days in a tent on a sidewalk near the prime minister’s residence.