This post has been updated, October 12, 2011
By Noam Sheizaf and Noa Yachot
The Israeli government approved late Tuesday night a deal struck with Hamas to secure the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Schalit, who was abducted in a cross-border raid while serving in a tank unit near the Gaza Strip, has been in Hamas captivity for more than five years.
Since his abduction in June 2006, ongoing negotiations for Schalit’s release have broken down on multiple occasions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to his cabinet on Tuesday, said the soldier would be freed within days.
The Israeli government met for a special session on Tuesday evening to vote on the deal, which was mediated by Egyptian and German government officials. According to the Israeli news site Ynet, the eight senior cabinet ministers – who comprise Israel’s top decision-making forum – approved the deal on Monday, rendering the vote a formality. The deal was overwhelmingly approved, with 23 ministers voting in favor and three against: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon (Likud), Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, both from Yisrael Beiteinu.
Spontaneous celebrations took place at the Schalit family’s protest tent in Jerusalem. Counter-protesters demonstrated outside the tent against the release of Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands” – a term denoting those charged with deaths of Israelis. The soldier’s parents, Aviva and Noam Schalit, came to the tent after the vote, thanking their supporters and expressing cautious pleasure at the vote. “For us, the matter will come to a close when we see Gilad arriving at home and walking down the stairs into the house – that’s when we’ll be able to say that this circle has been closed,” Noam Schalit told the press.
According to media reports, several hundred of the Palestinian prisoners will be released to Jordan and Egypt, and the rest to the West Bank and Gaza. Popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who was sentenced to five life terms for his involvement in attacks on Israelis during the second Intifada, was initially said to be among the list of prisoners included in the deal, but Channel 10 later reported he would not be released. Other high profile leaders to remain in prison, despite long-standing Hamas demands, include Hamas leader Abdallah Barghouti and PFLP Secretary-General Ahmed Saadat.
Ynet reported on Tuesday that among the prisoners on the list, 110 will be released to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 203 originally from the West Bank will be “deported” to the Gaza Strip or abroad and 133 Gazans will be returned to their homes, as will six Arab citizens of Israel. Haaretz reported that included in the deal are the militants who killed kidnapped IDF soldiers Nachshon Wachsman, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Saadon; and the driver of the suicide bomber who blew up at Sbarro Pizza in Jerusalem in 2002.
In a televised announcement on Tuesday evening, exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal hailed the deal as a victory for Hamas. He also said that a total of 1,000 male prisoners would be released, in addition to 27 women – reportedly all of the Palestinian women imprisoned in Israel. The release will be carried out in two stages, the first of which will see 450 prisoners freed within a week, and the second carried out in two months. Some 280 Palestinians on the list are presently serving life sentences in Israel.
Israel recently toughened the conditions of the roughly 5,200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in what it presented as a bid to pressure Hamas to release Schalit. Hundreds of prisoners have launched a hunger strike in recent days in protest.