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Shalit Freed in Prisoner Swap, But Hamas’ Armed Wing Signals More Struggles

October 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The Middle East was the scene today of the largest prisoner trade in many years. Israel let hundreds of Palestinians out of its prisons in exchange for a lone Israeli army sergeant.

A pale, thin Gilad Shalit crossed from Gaza into Egypt this morning, beginning a complex 1,000-for-one prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinian military movement Hamas. At roughly the same time, more than 450 Palestinians were freed. They were the first bloc of a staged release of prisoners the Israelis have held for years, in some cases decades, for terrorism and other crimes.

Shalit was captured by Hamas militants in June 2006. Today, the visibly weak 25-year-old labored to breathe at times as he was interviewed by Egyptian television at the Gaza border crossing.

QUESTION: Did you ever think you would live to see the day when you can actually walk free?

GILAD SHALIT, freed Israeli soldier (through translator): Yes. There were five long years. And I always thought the day would come when I would be freed and not kept captive. It may have taken a long time, but it finally happened. I received the news of the release a week ago. I felt this could be the last chance for me to be set free.

GWEN IFILL: Israeli officials condemned the interview, saying it was done under duress, with Hamas gunmen standing nearby. The Egyptian interviewer denied there was any coercion.

Shalit was then transferred to Israeli custody at Kerem Shalom, which means Vineyard of Peace, in southern Israel. From there, he was flown to an air base in the center of the country to be reunited with his family.

He was also greeted by Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who struck the deal with Hamas last week with Egypt acting as go-between.

Netanyahu said Palestinians shouldn’t mistake the Israeli concession for weakness.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister (through translator): I want to clarify. We will continue to fight terror, and every released terrorist who returns to terror will pay with his life.

GWEN IFILL: But the prime minister came in for harsh criticism from political opponents, who considered the price of the deal too high.

MICHAEL BEN-ARI, Israeli Knesset member (through translator): I am happy for the Shalit family, but I am very worried for the people of Israel, because the message is that Jewish blood is shed in vain. The people of Israel are defeated because of one soldier.

GWEN IFILL: There was little sense of defeat, however, near Shalit’s home in northern Israel, where a jubilant crowd greeted him after a long time gone.

Similar, but wholly separate jubilation erupted across the West Bank in Gaza, as Palestinian prisoners arrived home. Buses ferried them into Gaza City and into Ramallah and other locations on the West Bank. The terms of the deal dictated exile for some of those released.

Hamas runs Gaza and holds the Palestinian prime minister’s office. This evening, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh addressed throngs in Gaza City. He said: “I want to say to those that are still inside, we didn’t forget you. Your freedom is in our hands. And, brothers, this is a new example of negotiations and a new way for Palestinians.”

And, in Cairo, the supreme leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, declared his group had won a signal victory over the Israelis.

KHALED MESHAAL, Hamas leader (through translator): Let Netanyahu explain why he signed the deal. Let him lie. Let him say anything. Let him say we made concessions. But the Israeli public knows who made the real concessions.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke in Ramallah. His Fatah Party controls the West Bank, along with much of the Palestinian governing apparatus.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, Palestinian Authority president (through translator): We thank God for your coming back safe, healthy, to your families, to your brothers, to your homeland. We call on the Israelis to release this new group of prisoners and fulfill their commitment, if they respect their commitment.

GWEN IFILL: But there was talk of continued struggle from the armed wing of Hamas.

ABU OBEIDA, al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas (through translator): We will fight more battles and with God’s help until all of our heroic prisoners are freed.

GWEN IFILL: And from one freed prisoner, Nael Barghouti, held for more than 30 years after killing an Israeli military officer: defiance.

NAEL BARGHOUTI, freed prisoner (through translator): Our struggle will not stop, nor will our jihad, until Palestine is liberated and all the refugees are back and all the prisoners.

GWEN IFILL: Indeed, one crowd in Gaza called for capturing more Israeli soldiers to force the release of more Palestinians. They chanted in unison, “We want another Gilad.”