Israel eagerly awaits Shalit return
Jerusalem - Israel was impatiently awaiting news on Wednesday about when captive soldier Gilad Shalit would return home, a day after the Jewish state inked a deal with Hamas that will see 1 000 Palestinians freed.
The deal, which was signed late on Tuesday, is expected to get under way in the coming days, with the initial release of some 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, who has been held captive for more than five years.
A second tranche of 550 prisoners will be released in two months.
Top officials from Israel, Egypt and the Hamas movement have all said the process would begin within days, but so far there have been no specific details on the timing or the location of the swap.
If the accord is implemented, it will end an ordeal that has lasted more than five years for the young soldier, who has become a national icon in Israel since his capture by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.
Major coup for Hamas
It will also be the first time in 26 years that a captured Israeli soldier has been returned to the Jewish state alive.
And it will be a major political coup for Gaza's Hamas rulers, particularly vis-a-vis the Ramallah-based leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The agreement, which won the backing of Israel's top military and defence chiefs, was approved by the government early on Wednesday, although Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and two other ministers voted against it.
"This is a great victory for Hamas," National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau told army radio early on Wednesday, describing it as a clear message to the Palestinians that "terror pays".
"This deal will bring the release of many terrorists, and will be a major incentive for murdering Israelis and further kidnappings," he said.
Israel has long baulked at the idea of freeing hundreds of Palestinian involved in anti-Israeli violence, fearing that they would use their new-found freedom to launch fresh attacks.
"There's no doubt that this is very hard for the families of hundreds of victims of terror," Yoram Cohen, head of the Shin Bet internal security services told reporters late on Tuesday.
"This is not a deal that we can say is good but if you want to bring Shalit home there's no other option."
Options for Shalit’s freedom
Israeli security sources said details of exactly how Shalit would be brought home had not yet been worked out, and chief negotiator David Meidan was expected to head to Cairo later this week to finalise them, media reports said.
The sources said various options were being explored, including taking Shalit to Egypt or possibly Germany where he would be freed when the 450 prisoners were released. Both Germany and Egypt helped broker the deal.
Regarding the prisoners, Cohen said in the coming days, 131 Gazans would be sent home, while 96 prisoners from the West Bank will be allowed to return to their families.
A group of 14 from east Jerusalem and six Arab-Israeli prisoners will also return home.
But another 203 West Bank residents would not be permitted to return home, he said, with 163 to be released in Gaza, and 40 to be sent overseas, to as yet unspecified locations.
Separately, 27 female detainees will be released, with two deported overseas.
Parents leaving tent
Although none of the prisoners have yet been named, Israel has ruled out releasing two high-profile Palestinians - influential leader Marwan Barghuti and top PFLP militant Ahmed Saadat.
A list of names will eventually be posted on the Israel Prisons Service website, but a spokesperson said it was unlikely to happen on Wednesday.
In Jerusalem, Noam and Aviva Shalit, parents of the captive soldier, were to return to their home on Wednesday after spending nearly 16 months living in a protest tent outside Netanyahu's residence.
The unexpected announcement won praise from around the globe, including from Abbas, who hailed it as a "Palestinian national achievement".
Shalit was captured in a deadly cross-border raid on June 25 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups including Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and a Salafist group called the Army of Islam.
Efforts to secure a deal have until now stalled over the identities of the prisoners and the locations where they would be released to.