Hamas declared Tuesday a holiday, and a mural depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing to the swap as a gunman kicked his face into the ground. A spokesman for Hamas’s military arm suggested that the group would continue to seek opportunities to seize Israeli soldiers.
As busloads of freed Palestinians arrived in the West Bank, residents waved Hamas flags, a rare sight in the Palestinian enclave where the rival Fatah wing has traditionally been more popular. The exchange appears to have undermined the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the more-moderate Fatah, while raising the profile of Hamas, which negotiated the exchange through Egyptian intermediaries.
Netanyahu said signing off on the deal had been “a very difficult decision,” and he alluded to possible challenges ahead. “I want to make it clear: We will continue to fight terrorism,” he said. “Any released terrorist who returns to terrorism” will be dealt with.
Shalit, 25, looked frail and dazed five years after Hamas fighters ambushed his tank, killed two of his comrades and dragged him into the Gaza Strip in 2006. The captive soldier had little contact with the outside world, other than occasional access to radio and television news in Arabic, his father said.
Shalit was visible only briefly Tuesday as he was hurriedly ushered from Gaza into Egypt through the Rafah crossing, plopped down for an interview with Egyptian state television and finally turned over to Israeli forces at a nearby border. Israeli doctors said Shalit showed signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to sunlight but was otherwise healthy; his father said Shalit, who was 19 when he was seized, continues to suffer from shrapnel wounds received during his capture.
“I thought that I would find myself in this situation many more years,” Shalit said in the television interview, his only public remarks.
“He came out of a dark pit, a dark cellar,” his father, Noam, told reporters. “Gilad is happy to be home but finds it difficult to be around a large number of people, as he was held in seclusion for so many days and years.”
Shalit’s release removed one of the main sources of tension between Israel and the Palestinians and raised the prospect that the blockade Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip for years could be eased. But it seemed unlikely that it would set a new tone for the bellicose relationship between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas leaders said they would continue to fight for the release of the more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel will have in custody after the 1,027 included in the exchange are free. The first of two groups, which included 477 inmates, was released Tuesday.