Israel, Hamas to Swap Prisoners for Captured Soldier

Posted October 12th, 2011 at 6:05 am (UTC-5)
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Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas say they have reached a deal to free an Israeli soldier held captive for five years in the Gaza Strip, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the Egyptian-mediated agreement on Israeli television late Tuesday. His Cabinet later voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal.

Mr. Netanyahu said if all goes according to plan, Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit will be home within days.

The Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal confirmed an agreement has been reached, setting off wild celebrations in Gaza and elsewhere as word spread that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners soon will be released from Israeli jails.

Meshal said the Israeli government has agreed to free 1,027 Palestinians. Israel's top security official denied rumors that the most prominent prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, and the leader of a Palestinian faction, Ahmed Saadat, will be included in the deal.

Barghouti was arrested in 2002 and is serving multiple life terms for his role in deadly attacks against Israelis. He is considered a possible successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.

Gilad Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 when Palestinian militants burrowed into Israel and dragged him into Gaza. His prolonged incarceration became a major sticking point in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After Mr. Netanyahu announced the deal, supporters gathered around the tent that Shalit's parents had set up outside the prime minister's residence to push for his return. His mother said the family's joy is indescribable, but that they will restrain their emotions until he is released.

One of three Israeli Cabinet members to vote against the deal, Uzi Landau, spoke out against the agreement saying it will provide incentive for future abductions.

Meanwhile in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Middle East Quartet is calling for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Jordan on October 23.

Nuland told reporters the request came after Quartet diplomats met on Sunday. She said the U.S., which is part of the Quartet along with the EU, U.N. and Russia, is “hopeful that both parties will take up that offer.”

Earlier Tuesday, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli troops outside a jail near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The protesters were demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinian inmates who have gone on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Soldiers fired tear gas as protesters hurled stones and other objects at the troops. Several people were injured.

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have joined the hunger strike that started two weeks ago. More than 6,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails for crimes ranging from killing Israelis to stone-throwing.

Israeli officials call the prison conditions satisfactory and say they may resort to force-feeding those on a hunger strike.