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Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to be released after five years

Shalit was captured in 2006 and has been held since then by Hamas militants, with little known of his condition.

A poster of Shalit on a wall in Jerusalem
A poster of Shalit on a wall in Jerusalem
Image: KEVIN FRAYER/AP/Press Association Images

A CAPTURED ISRAELI soldier held for years by Hamas militants will be home “in the coming days” after a prisoner exchange was agreed on, Israel’s prime minister has said.

Benjamin Netanyahu said late Tuesday that a deal with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit was initialled last Thursday and signed earlier today.

The deal would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis, in exchange for Sgt Shalit.

Netanyahu said in a televised address that he understands the pain of Israeli families who have lost loved ones to Palestinian violence. But he said he got “the best deal we could get” given the turmoil in the region.

Sgt Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 by Palestinian militants who burrowed into Israel and dragged him into Gaza. Little has been known about his fate since then.

The agreement would exchange Schalit, 25, for around 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israel had previously balked at Hamas’ demands because some of the prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.

Other sticking points in the past have been whether prisoners would be allowed to return home to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or be sent into exile instead. Exact details of the deal were not immediately available.

A Hamas delegation led by a top Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, arrived in Cairo Monday night from the group’s headquarters in Syria. The deal would be implemented within days, said Ezzat Rishq, a Hamas official in the delegation.

Days in captivity

Shalit’s plight has captured the attention of Israel, where military service is mandatory for Jewish citizens, and people identify with the Shalit family’s pain.

Hamas has allowed no access to Shalit, and released only a brief audio recording and a videotaped statement early in his five years in captivity.

The soldier’s father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure through a a campaign to win his son’s freedom, leading demonstrations and sleeping in a tent outside Netanyahu’s residence.

Dozens of Israelis converged on the tent late Tuesday to offer support to the family. The tiny structure is decorated with pictures of Shalit, as well as a large sign with the number 1,934, the number of days he has been in captivity.

Schalit’s parents sat in the tent, smiling as people flooded to the area and cars honked horns in excitement.

Likewise, the plight of Palestinian prisoners is deeply emotional among Palestinians. Virtually every Palestinian has a relative who has served time in an Israeli prison, and Palestinians routinely hold large demonstrations where they hold up posters of their imprisoned loved ones.

Announcement of the deal coincided with a hunger strike launched by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners seeking better conditions. The prisoners had been demanding the restoration of key privileges, such as having Arabic TV channels and being allowed to take university courses, which have been systematically stripped since Shalit’s capture.

Read more: Quartet to meet this weekend in bid to revive Middle East peace talks>

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Associated Press

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