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”.
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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, Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston reported 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.