Israel accused of giving in to terrorism over prisoner swap
Lone soldier to be traded for almost 300 killers
The Israeli government was accused of capitulating to terrorism yesterday after it emerged that nearly 300 Palestinians serving life sentences are to be released in exchange for freeing the soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza.
The process of embarking on the country's most lopsided prisoner swap was under way last night as a list of Palestinians to be freed was handed to President Shimon Peres .
Mr Peres is expected to grant freedom to 1,027 Palestinians. Although Israel has a history of agreeing to major prisoner swaps in exchange for its captured citizens -- or even their corpses -- never have so many been freed for one man.
That alone has prompted disgruntlement on the Israeli Right, but discontent turned to fury after the government admitted that 280 of those to be released were serving life sentences for murder.
The identity of those to be released will not be made public until Saturday evening, but there were widespread claims that the prisoners serving life terms were responsible for 500 Israeli deaths during the Intifada that began in 2000.
The recriminations spread into the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was warned that he would only embolden Hamas by giving so much for so little.
"The release of terrorists is a message that is simple: abductions pay off, terror pays," said Uzi Landau, minister of national infrastructure, who predicted that the Islamist group would plan further abductions from its stronghold in Gaza.
As one of three ministers in the 29-man cabinet to vote against the deal, Mr Landau's views were hardly representative of the public mood. The agreement was widely hailed, with most Israelis deeply relieved that the 25-year-old conscript, spirited into Gaza by tunnel in June 2006 is finally coming home.
There has also been huge sympathy for Sergeant Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, who ended an 18-month vigil outside Mr Netanyahu's office in emotional scenes yesterday, dismantling their protest camp to prepare to welcome back their son.
"This is a symbolic day of happiness blended with sorrow," Mr Shalit said. "The government succeeded after five years and 1,935 long nights in bringing Gilad home."
Their joy was tempered by uncertainty, after so many moments of disappointment when promised breakthroughs have collapsed. Mr Shalit said he would rejoice only when he saw his son descend the steps to the family home.
Sgt Shalit is expected to be flown to Cairo as early as next Tuesday by when the opportunity for legal challenges to the swap will have been exhausted.
Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet, admitted that some of those released could again unleash a campaign of violence. "We cannot promise that they will not produce terror," he said. "Statistics show that 60pc of those released in prisoner swaps return to activity in terrorist organisations."
He insisted that Israel could deal with the threat, arguing that Hamas was not interested in escalating violence.
Yet there was little doubt that the swap represents a victory for Hamas.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the secular Fatah party, has for years tried to convince Israel to release Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas used its triumph to taunt its rivals yesterday. Mustafa al-Sawaf, a senior Hamas official, said: "Resistance got what it wanted and Hamas fulfilled the promise it made." (© Daily Telegraph, London)