Israel, Hamas Agree To Prisoner Exchange

The Israeli government and the Palestinian militant group Hamas announce an agreement on a prisoner exchange that will include Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants and held in Gaza for the past 5 1/2 years. Robert Siegel talks to Sheera Frenkel for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Almost five and a half years ago, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was seized by the Palestinian group Hamas. He's been held in the Gaza Strip ever since. Now, Shalit may be finally coming home. Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group have reached agreement on a prisoner swap that will include Shalit. Full details of the exchange have not been revealed, but Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Shalit could be home in a matter of days. For more, Sheera Frenkel joins us from Jerusalem now. And, Sheera, what do we know about the deal so far?

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: We know it's based on previous negotiations, which have all discussed about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being released in exchange for Shalit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already announced that he'll be coming home to Israel within the coming days. These negotiations have happened over the course of two successive governments, basically since Shalit was captured in June 2006 in a cross-border raid. The - at that point, a group of militants from Gaza used tunnels to launch an attack on Shalit's battalion and captured him, taking him back to an unknown location in the Gaza Strip.

SIEGEL: Now, as we've heard, Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken about this. Have Hamas officials spoken at all about the deal?

FRENKEL: Yes, Hamas officials have in a speech from Damascus. Exiled Palestinian leader Khaled Mashaal said that about 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would be released in two separate stages. A spokesman from Gaza also confirmed the deal and said that they've achieved 99 percent of what they hoped for in exchange for Shalit. He noted as well that this was the largest number of Palestinian prisoners that Israel has ever freed.

SIEGEL: Sheera, how is this story being received in Israel?

FRENKEL: I would say that there's a sense of really hesitant celebration. In Jerusalem, hundreds of people are making their way to this tent where the Shalit family has been living for over one year. And I think Israelis are seeing them maybe for the first time with smiles on their faces. The ongoing captivity of Gilad Shalit has really become part of the national conscious here. Israel is a country where the military ethos runs deep, and the popular campaign to return Shalit from Gaza has touched most Israeli homes.

SIEGEL: And what about reaction among Palestinians in Gaza?

FRENKEL: Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Gaza to celebrate. A lot of those celebrations are being spurred by reports that two popular Palestinian leaders, Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, will be released as part of the exchange. Those reports have not been confirmed by Israel yet. But the news alone that 1,000 prisoners would soon be released is also being seen as a massive accomplishment for Hamas.

SIEGEL: If indeed Marwan Barghouti, whom you mentioned, if indeed he were one of those released, he would be a leading figure among Palestinians, wouldn't he?

FRENKEL: He is. He is actually being seen as one of the few figures that could bring together the Islamist Hamas group in Gaza Strip and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And his release would signal a massive political accomplishment for both groups.

SIEGEL: You said Hamas call this the biggest single release of prisoners ever. Actually, back in the 1980s, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin released, I think, over 1,100 to get three POWs back. There is some history of big releases here, big swaps by the Israelis.

FRENKEL: Well, recently there was the exchange with the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon. Two Israeli soldiers, Goldwasser and Regev, their bodies were given back to Israel in exchange for thousands of soldiers that had fallen during the wars between Israel and Lebanon, some of them alive, some of them dead.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The exchange in question took place in July 2008: Israel received the bodies of its soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and in exchange gave Hezbollah five living fighters and the bodies of 199 Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters who had been killed in previous years.]

SIEGEL: Well, Sheera, thanks for talking with us. And keep us posted.

FRENKEL: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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Correction Feb. 13, 2012

In this story, our reporter referred to an exchange between Hezbollah and Israel as involving "thousands" of remains of Palestinian fighters who had died in combat. The exchange in question took place in July 2008: Israel received the bodies of its soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and in exchange gave Hezbollah five living fighters and the bodies of 199 Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters who had been killed in previous years.

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