Prisoner swap with Israel emboldens Hamas

Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home Tuesday looking pale and rail thin to a country bracing itself for fallout from a prisoner swap that has emboldened the militant Palestinian faction Hamas.

A subdued Israeli homecoming ceremony for Shalit stood in stark contrast to the mood in the Gaza Strip, where buses carrying the first of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be freed as part of the exchange were escorted by heavily armed Hamas fighters.

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.

“The rest of the prisoners must be released, because if they are not released in a normal way, they will be released in other ways,” Mousa Abu Marzook, one of the movement’s top leaders said, according to the Hamas-linked Web site al-Qassam.

“Hamas’s popularity has skyrocketed,” said Wisam Salame, 32, an electrician in the West Bank. He complained that Abbas had never been able to win such a prisoner release. “Resistance is the only way to force the occupier to release prisoners and achieve our goals,” he added.

Akram Abdullah Kassem, one of the prisoners released in Gaza, said he was happy to be free after 10 years in custody, but saddened by the fellow prisoners he left behind.

“I’m demanding to the resistance not to spare any effort to kidnap more soldiers,” he said Tuesday. “The Jews only understand one language — the language of force.”

Sana Shehade, 36, one of the 27 women freed as part of the deal, called Shalit “my token to freedom.”

She said that as Shalit’s mother delighted in the reunion, she should keep in mind that there are thousands of “Palestinian mothers waiting to hold their sons.”

As the first images of the freed soldier were broadcast on Israeli television Tuesday morning, the prevailing mood among Israelis was a sense of relief. It was readily apparent, however, that the deal to swap Shalit for so many captured Palestinian militants came with significant risks.

“Today, we are all united in joy and pain,” Netanyahu told reporters at the Tel Nof air base, south of Tel Aviv, moments after Shalit was reunited with his family. He said the state had been compelled to sign off on the prisoner swap to retrieve a soldier “Israel had sent to the battlefield.”

As Shalit returned home Tuesday night, thousands of Israelis formed a human chain along the road that leads to his house. Some waved Israeli flags and held flowers, Israeli news footage showed.

A family spokeswoman said his mother, Aviva, had purchased all the ingredients to make his favorite meals. The soldier’s grandfather, Zvi Shalit, told Israeli media that Shalit appeared healthier than relatives feared he would be, but was in need of rest.

“Gilad spoke very quietly and said he was tired and wanted to sleep,” the grandfather said.

Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem, Islam Abdel Kareem in the Gaza Strip and Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.