Hamas, Israel Reach Deal To Swap Prisoners

The Israeli government and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have agreed to a prisoner exchange. Hamas says Israel will free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants and held in Gaza for more than five years.

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An Israeli soldier kidnapped and held in Gaza for five years will soon be free now that Israel has agreed to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the soldier's release. It is a landmark deal for Israel and Hamas, which remain bitter enemies. Sheera Frenkel reports there are celebrations both in Israeli and Palestinian cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CELEBRATING)

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Jubilant crowds danced in the streets of Jerusalem Tuesday night, as news spread that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would soon be released. On the street corner outside the prime minister's residence, hundreds have gathered in solidarity with Aviva and Noam Shalit, the parents of Gilad. The Shalit family erected a tent here to hold vigil for their son nearly two years ago.

After hours of debate, Israel's Cabinet approved a deal to exchange Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. It's the largest number of prisoners to be released for a single solider in Israel's history. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the deal came after arduous negotiations.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Through translator) I believe we have the best possible agreement we could at this juncture. I don't know if, in the near future, there would have been better opportunities or any opportunity at all to reach an agreement. It's possible that in the near future, this window of opportunity would close completely.

FRENKEL: Negotiations to release Shalit have been ongoing since he was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006. Palestinian militants used a network of tunnels to take Shalit hostage into the Gaza Strip, where he has been held.

For Israelis, Shalit's ongoing captivity became a part of the national consciousness. Bumper stickers and placards calling for Shalit to return home are common in Israel, a country where the military ethos that every soldier should be returned home runs deep. Noam Shalit addressed the crowd of supporters.

NOAM SHALIT: (Through translator) Thank you to our supporters, those who have stood by us through the years in this lengthy campaign. For us, as Gilad's family, we can only say that this ordeal is over when we see Gilad back, coming down the stairs into the family's house.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FRENKEL: In Gaza, the news of the exchange deal is spurring thousands to the streets in impromptu celebrations. The names of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be released is not yet published, but Abu Obaida, a spokesman for the military wing of the Islamist Hamas group, says it's a victory.

ABU OBAIDA: (Through translator) We consider this moment as a historical moment for our Palestinian citizens, who suffer from this occupation. It's a historical moment after all the failed deliberations to release those prisoners.

FRENKEL: He says that Hamas will continue to seek the release of its prisoners, through any means possible.

OBAIDA: (Through translator) If there's a peaceful way to release them, then we will not have to do any military operations. But if all those attempts fail to release them, then we will have no way but resistance to liberate those prisoners.

FRENKEL: He adds that many families across the Palestinian territories are anxiously awaiting news as to whether their loved ones are on the list of Palestinian prisoners to be released.

For NPR news, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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