Freed Israeli Soldier Back Home, Palestinians Celebrate Return of Prisoners

Posted October 18th, 2011 at 2:55 pm (UTC-5)
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An Israeli soldier released by Hamas militants who held him for five years has received a joyous reception in his hometown, while tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza celebrated Israel's release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier.

An Israeli military helicopter flew Sergeant Gilad Shalit to the northern Israeli town of Mitzpeh Hila Tuesday, as thousands of well wishers lined the streets, waving Israeli flags. His father, Noam, said the soldier is very happy to be home but is suffering several ailments resulting from captivity and will undergo a process of rehabilitation.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared the release of Palestinian prisoners to be a “victory from God” in a fiery speech to a huge rally of supporters in Gaza City. The crowd urged Hamas to kidnap more Israeli soldiers, chanting “The people want a new Gilad.” Israel transferred about 300 Palestinian prisoners to Gaza, where they received a jubilant welcome before joining Hamas leaders at the rally.

Thousands more Palestinians gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah for a ceremony to greet more than 100 other released prisoners.

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the thin and pale soldier an air base in central Israel and warned that any freed Palestinian who returns to terrorism will be held accountable. Most of the released prisoners were serving life sentences for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis.

About 40 released Palestinians were being deported from the Egyptian capital, Cairo to Turkey, Syria and Qatar. Turkey said it was sending a plane to Cairo to pick up about 10 of the prisoners.

Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal greeted the freed prisoners in Cairo and said his group had forced Israel “to pay the price.”

In Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shared a stage with Hamas members and praised the freed detainees as “freedom fighters” in the Palestinian struggle for an independent state and an end to Israeli occupation.

The prisoner exchange deal mediated by Egypt called for Hamas to free Shalit in return for Israel's simultaneous release of 477 Palestinian inmates. Israel is required to free another 550 Palestinian prisoners over a two-month period.

At the Gaza rally, freed prisoner Yehiye Sinwar, a senior Hamas militant, called on Palestinian militant groups to free the more than 5,000 remaining detainees from Israeli custody as quickly as possible.

Shalit, now 25 years old, was captured by Palestinian militants in a 2006 cross-border raid from Gaza into southern Israel. Hamas authorities released him Tuesday into the custody of Egyptian officials in the Sinai peninsula, from where he crossed into Israel.

In an interview with Egyptian state television minutes after his release, Shalit appeared disoriented as he answered a reporter's questions with a masked Hamas militant standing behind him. Asked if he would support the release of other Palestinian prisoners, Shalit said he would be happy to see them freed if they stop fighting Israel. He also said he missed his family and friends.

Israeli officials said Egyptian television conducted the interview despite their objections, while Israeli media called it insensitive.