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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2011

Frail Israeli soldier tastes freedom in prisoner swap

BLADE NEWS SERVICES
<p>israeli defense ministry</p><p>Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Schalit, second from right, walks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, right, at the Tel Nof Air Base in Israel. </p> <p>israeli defense ministry</p><p>Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Schalit, second from right, walks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, right, at the Tel Nof Air Base in Israel. </p>
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JERUSALEM -- Arriving in Gaza after six years in an Israeli prison, one of hundreds traded to Hamas for an Israeli soldier, Wafa al-Bass declared her next goal: abduct more Israeli soldiers. Others who returned said they could not feel satisfaction until the thousands of remaining Palestinian prisoners were freed.

<p>associated press</p><p>Freed Palestinian prisoner Khalil Abu Alba, who killed eight people in a bus attack, is greeted in Gaza. </p> <p>associated press</p><p>Freed Palestinian prisoner Khalil Abu Alba, who killed eight people in a bus attack, is greeted in Gaza. </p>
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And Israelis, at first thrilled at the sight of their liberated soldier, were angered by how he looked -- frail, wan, and underfed.

<p>associated press</p><p>Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, center, greets two freed Palestinian prisoners released from an Israeli jail upon their arrival in Cairo. </p> <p>associated press</p><p>Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, center, greets two freed Palestinian prisoners released from an Israeli jail upon their arrival in Cairo. </p>
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It was a day when many things went right. Promises were kept, an agreement between sworn enemies was implemented, people wept with joy. The military chief of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jabari, one of the most wanted and despised men in Israel, was seen on television leading the freed Israeli, Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Schalit, from Gaza to liberty.

<p>israeli government</p><p>Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Schalit arrives at Tel Nof Air Base. He arrived home yesterday looking thin, weary, and dazed. </p> <p>israeli government</p><p>Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Schalit arrives at Tel Nof Air Base. He arrived home yesterday looking thin, weary, and dazed. </p>
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Some said all this should improve chances for peacemaking and reconciliation. But it was almost immediately clear the prisoner swap was also a source of acrimony.

"I would like to believe that this will permit the taking up again of discussions" between Israel and the Palestinians, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said. He said the prisoner swap showed that "even in the most difficult moments there can be hope."

That was not the mood among the great majority of participants. Each side accused the other of mistreating its prisoners. Sergeant Schalit, who was denied Red Cross visits throughout his imprisonment, was pushed into an uncomfortable interview on Egyptian television before being handed over to Israel, and Israelis watched his measured responses and labored breathing with fury.

Hamas officials said their members had been subject in Israeli prisons to "torture, compulsion, and revenge."

Israelis whose loved ones were killed by some of those released said the deal was justice undone and capitulation to a sworn enemy.

Hamas quickly called for its members to capture more Israeli soldiers to free the remaining 5,000 or so Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Crowds in Gaza chanted: "The people want a new Gilad!"

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, a Hamas rival, also spoke of the vital need to free the remaining prisoners. He made that point in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he welcomed about 100 freed prisoners in a citywide celebration. And although he has long focused on popular, nonviolent struggle, he is facing pressure to take a harder line as Hamas' accomplishments seem more tangible than his bid to win Palestinian statehood through the United Nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel threatened that any freed prisoner who returned to violence would pay for it. Such a person is "taking his life into his hands," he said at the Tel Nof air base south of Tel Aviv after embracing Sergeant Schalit and handing him over to his parents.

There were people watching the events in Israel who found cause for optimism.

"I believe the masses everywhere want peace," said Isaac Herzog, a Labor Party member of Parliament. "The Gaza leadership is stuck in its rhetoric of revolution and resistance. But the people are fed up with their leadership. It's a whole new ball game in the Middle East now."

Some Israelis did not agree.

"I am a peace activist, but it takes two to tango," said Yossi Peled, a sociologist who lives in the northern community of Mitzpe Hila near the Schalit family. "For five years they did not let anyone see Gilad. His father made clear that he was harshly treated, especially in the first years. So how can this bring the sides closer?"

Mr. Peled called the interview on Egyptian television with Sergeant Schalit "shocking" and "nasty."

Looking wan and uncomfortable, the sergeant appeared to struggle to speak at times, and his breathing was noticeably labored as he answered questions asked through an interpreter.

Stumbling over his words, he spoke in Hebrew of missing his family and friends, said he feared he would remain in captivity "many more years" and worried that the deal might fall through after learning about it last week.

At times, the questions seemed awkward and even inappropriate.

Noting that more than 4,000 Palestinians are still imprisoned in Israel, the interviewer asked: "Will you help campaign for their release?"

After a long pause, Sergeant Shalit replied: "I would be really happy that [Palestinian prisoners] are freed, but they shouldn't go back to fighting Israel." Then he added: "I really hope that this deal advances peace and not more military conflicts and wars between Israel and the Palestinians."

Sergeant Schalit was the first Israeli soldier taken captive returned alive in 26 years. Hamas and other militant groups had captured him in a border raid on Israel in June, 2006, that killed two other soldiers.

The Schalit family engaged the entire country to pressure the government to bring him home through a prisoner exchange, using marches and holding a vigil in a tent outside the prime minister's residence.

For Palestinians, the return of relatives held for years in Israeli prisons was a source of great elation. Celebrations were held in the center of Gaza and Ramallah with vows not to forget those remaining behind. The day began with mosque loudspeakers in Gaza crying "God is great" and "Victory to God" as people awaited the arrival of 477 prisoners. An additional 550 are expected to be released in two months.



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