Israel’s Shalit, Palestinians freed in captive swap
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller, Reuters
GAZA/JERUSALEM – Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel’s borders in opposite directions on Tuesday as a thousand-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.
Sergeant Shalit, 25, returned home to a national outpouring of emotion in Israel after five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip. The first few hundred of over a thousand Palestinians being freed in stages from Israeli jails were greeted with kisses and flags in Gaza and the West Bank.
“I missed my family very much,” a gaunt Shalit, his breathing laboured at times, said in an interview with Egyptian television, conducted before he was transferred to Israel. “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.
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.
In the television interview, Shalit said he found out a week ago that he was to be released. The soldier, who had not been seen since a 2009 video, said he had feared he would be held “for many more years”.
Political commentators said it appeared unlikely the prisoner exchange agreed by the two bitter enemies would have any immediate impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down last year.
The mood in Israel was largely celebratory, with “welcome home” signs on street corners and morning commuters watching live broadcasts of the swap on cellular telephones.
Shalit has been popularly portrayed as “everyone’s son” and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the deal.
A military statement said he was in good health and the army released photographs of him, back in uniform and spectacles, saluting Netanyahu. But witnesses said Shalit felt nauseous and weak on his arrival in Israel and needed oxygen.
“I brought your boy home,” Netanyahu said he told Shalit’s parents, as he waited with them at the air base for the soldier’s helicopter to land.
Shalit’s parents had waged a public campaign to urge the right-wing leader to do more to secure his release and had set up a protest tent near Netanyahu’s residence.
For Palestinians, it was a time to celebrate what Hamas hailed as a victory.
In Gaza, territory seized by Hamas in 2007 from President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, a national holiday was declared and flag-waving young men drove through the streets. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh embraced the freed prisoners as they piled out of buses.
Other former prisoners also received a heroes’ welcome in Ramallah, the headquarters of Abbas’s West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
“This is the greatest joy for the Palestinian people,” said Azzia al-Qawasmeh, who waited at a West Bank checkpoint for her son Amer, whom she said had been in prison for 24 years.
Some see the prisoner deal as a boost for Hamas at the expense of Abbas, who has renounced violence in favour of negotiation but has so far failed to see years of talks with Israel produce major progress towards a Palestinian state.
But on the wider diplomatic front, it was announced on the eve of the swap that international efforts to revive peace talks that collapsed 13 months ago in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building had failed to bring both sides together for meetings scheduled for October 26 in Jerusalem.
Envoys from the Quartet of mediators — the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations — will instead hold separate sessions with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Hamas opposes the peace process.
Palestinians set free included Nasser Yatayma, serving a life sentence for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 30 people attending a Jewish Passover seder, or traditional meal, in a hotel in central Israel in 2002.
Amana Mona, a Palestinian activist from the West Bank, was also released. She was jailed for life for using an Internet chatroom and promises of sex to lure a 16-year-old Israeli to his death in 2001, when she was 24.
Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He was whisked back into Gaza and has since been held incommunicado.
Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the small coastal enclave after Shalit’s disappearance.
Gilad Shalit handed over to Israel as 477 Palestinian prisoners return in first phase of agreed swap deal.
Al Jazeera and agencies
The first phase of a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel has now concluded, with over 400 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in exchange for the handing over of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas five years ago.
Shalit was handed over to Egyptian officials at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and was then taken by Israeli officials to the Tel Nof air base.
The release prompted the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners by Israel to Gaza and elsewhere.
In an interview with Egyptian television at Rafah, Shalit said that he hoped that the deal that allowed for his release on Tuesday would help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace.
“I will be very happy if all Palestinian prisoners are freed so they can go back to their families […] I hope this deal could help reach peace between Israelis and the Palestinians and strengthen cooperation,” he said.
More than 5,000 Palestinians languish in Israeli prisons – some for taking up arms against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, others on questionable charges.
Saree Makdisi, an author and professor at the University of California, told Al Jazeera that the value of the prisoner swap should not be over-estimated.
“We have to remember that the Israelis raid the West Bank literally on a nightly basis, usually ten times a day, an average of 300-400 raids a month,” he said.
“On all these raids, they collect prisoner after prisoner, so in an average month, they capture 300-400 prisoners, held against international law, held in appalling circumstances.”
‘Sense of excitement’
PM Netanyahu warned the released Palestinian prisoners that if they resumed armed struggle, they would be punished.
“We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mark Regev, the Israeli PM’s spokesman, said that his government had allowed the Red Cross regular access to Palestinian prisoners, adding “they didn’t look like [Shalit], who’s come out of five years living in a hole under the ground”.
On Shalit’s comments regarding his hope that the swap will help in any negotiations regarding peace, Regev said:
“I think Gilad Shalit was expressing the hope of all Israelis, that we hope to live in peace and reconciliation with our neighbours.”
After Shalit was handed over, groups of Palestinian prisoners were sent by bus to Gaza via Rafah, reported Al Jazeera correspondent Nicole Johnston from the border crossing, where Hamas’ military wing has been out in force.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros in Cairo said Shalit was accompanied by Ahmed Jabbari, the head of Hamas’ al-Qassem military wing, on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing before being transferred to Israel.
Earlier, in Israel, 96 Palestinian prisoners left the Ketziot prison, bound for the Ofer military camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, public radio reported early on Tuesday morning.
Another 334 were transferred to the Kerem Shalom crossing, at the southern-most point of the Israel-Gaza border. The first prisoners were dressed in civilian clothes, with their hands and feet manacled, the radio report said.
A convoy of vehicles left the Israeli Katsiout prison in Naqab, near the Egyptian border, before dawn on Tuesday. Vehicles carrying female prisoners also left HaSharon Prison in central Israel.
At the Beituniya border crossing, a “great sense of excitement” quickly evaporated after a last-minute change of plans meant that prisoners would not be brought in through the checkpoint to meet their families, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford reported.
After the announcement, the assembled crowd threw stones at the Israeli border post, prompting them to retaliate with tear gas and water cannon.
Hamas has declared Tuesday a national holiday and erected a giant podium in Gaza City’s al-Katiba Park, where it plans to transport the prisoners after they cross into the Palestinian enclave from Egypt.
Ismail Haniya, the prime minister, and members of the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, leaders of other factions, relatives and tens of thousands of onlookers were expected to welcome the prisoners.
Three days of celebrations were planned across the occupied West Bank, with President Mahmoud Abbas welcoming returning prisoners.
Hamas reached a deal with Israel on Tuesday for the release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, who was captured in 2006 and has since been held in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian prisoners will be released in two phases.
The full list of 477 prisoners scheduled for release, their home when arrested, date of birth, sentence and destination – decided by Israeli government – on release, can be found at http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/10/2011101675220436780.html
Child Prisoners: Urgent Appeal
Incident: Prisoner exchange – Release of Palestinian children
Location: Occupied Palestinian Territory/Israel
Date of incidents: Continuing
Number of cases: 164
Ages: 12 to 17 years
Date of issue: 17 October 2011
On 11 October 2011, Israel and Hamas announced a deal to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the freeing of Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Under the deal a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in two stages beginning on 18 October, and concluding two months later. On Sunday, 16 October 2011, the Israeli authorities published a list of 477 prisoners, including 27 women, to be released in the first stage on 18 October. The list does not include any children. DCI-Palestine can not confirm how many children, if any, will be released at the second stage in
According to the latest figures released by the Israeli Prison Service and DCI-Palestine, at the end of September there were 164 Palestinian children (12-17 years) in Israeli detention facilities, including 35 young children between the ages of 12–15 years. Seventy-six of these children have been sentenced, whilst 88 children are being held in pre-trial detention.
Each year approximately 700 Palestinian children (12-17 years) from the West Bank are prosecuted in Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army, police or security agents. It is estimated that since the year 2000, around 7,500 Palestinian children have been detained and prosecuted in the system. Credible reports of torture and/or ill-treatment during the arrest, transfer and interrogation stages in the system have persisted for years. The majority of these children are charged with throwing stones.
The ill-treatment starts at the moment of arrest, when many children report experiencing terrifying night-time raids on the family home, before being tied, often painfully so, and blindfolded. The destabilising effect of these night-time arrests is compounded by the fact that few parents are informed where their child is being taken to, often in the middle of the night. The common experience of many children is that the journey to the interrogation centre is routinely accompanied by further suffering, either because of the way the child is restrained, or because of further physical or verbal abuse. The transfer process can take many hours and often includes intermediate stops at settlements or military bases where further ill-treatment occurs, including in some cases, prolonged exposure to the elements, and a lack of water and toilet facilities.
On arrival at the interrogation centre, children are questioned alone and rarely appear to be informed of their rights, particularly the rights against self-incrimination. The interrogation techniques frequently include a mix of intimidation, threats and physical violence with a clear purpose of obtaining a confession, which in some cases, are written in Hebrew, a language few Palestinian children understand. Once the interrogation stage of the system is concluded, the majority of children remain in pre-trial detention awaiting their prosecution before a military court. The primary evidence against most children in the military courts will either be their confession, or the confession of another child who has been subjected to similar treatment. In the overwhelming majority of cases, children will plead guilty because this is the quickest way for them to get out of the system.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinian children in Israeli detention are held in prisons inside Israel, in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the transfer of prisoners out of occupied territory.
Please send appeals urging the Israeli authorities to release all Palestinian children currently held in detention, including all children serving sentences as well as those being held in pre-trial detention.
• Your elected representatives; and
• The Israeli embassy in your country
• DCI- Palestine submission – In their own Words: A report on the situation facing Palestinian children detained in the Israeli military court system (July 2011)
• B’Tselem report – No Minor Matter: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors Arrested by Israel on Suspicion of Stone-Throwing (July 2011)
• No Legal Frontiers – All Guilty! Observations in the Military Juvenile Court
• ACRI, DCI and Yesh Din demand equality for Palestinian children (June 2011)