As Gilad is freed, militants warn of more abductions
The Palestinian militant group that kidnapped Gilad Shalit five years ago marked his release from the Gaza Strip yesterday by promising to abduct more Israeli soldiers to use as leverage against the Jewish state.
An extraordinary year in the Middle East has seen days of drama, courage and bloodshed. For human poignancy, few have matched yesterday's historic prisoner swap between Israel and its arch-foe Hamas.
Shortly after dawn, Sergeant Major Shalit emerged from 1,940 days of solitary incarceration in Gaza as his captors handed him over to Egyptian mediators. Sallow, thin and hollow-eyed, the 25-year-old conscript took his first faltering steps to freedom, images of which horrified, delighted and moved his friends and relations watching the scenes in Israel.
Subjected to a hectoring interview on Egyptian state television, Sgt Maj Shalit confessed in hesitant tones that he had missed his family and the simple comfort of human contact. Then came the moment that so many Israelis longed to see as the soldier and his father Noam clasped each other in a long embrace.
On the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, vast crowds gathered in the West Bank and Gaza to give a tumultuous welcome to the 477 militants released from Israeli prisons -- the first of 1,027 Palestinians who are to be set free in the most lopsided prisoner swap in the history of the conflict.
Here too, there were embraces and tears as families were reunited with men, some of whom had been in prison for more than 30 years, regarded by Israel as terrorists but by many Palestinians as freedom fighters.
For optimists, the exchange was a moment of hope for a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Prompted by his Egyptian interviewer, Sgt Maj Shalit claimed to share such optimism, saying: "I hope this deal will lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support co-operation between both sides."
But amid the jubilation, the Popular Resistance Committees, the Hamas-dominated militant coalition, that captured Sgt Maj Shalit, vowed it would seize another Israeli soldier to force Israel to release the 6,000 Palestinian prisoners that remain in its custody.
"We are going to capture another soldier and cleanse all the Israeli jails of our prisoners," said a masked spokesman using the nom de guerre Abu Mujahid.
"The people want a new Gilad, the people want a new Gilad," chanted the crowd at a Hamas-sponsored rally in Gaza city to welcome the freed prisoners.
Around the world, leaders welcomed the conscript's release. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said: "I am full of admiration for the courage and fortitude which Sgt Maj Shalit and his family have shown through his long, cruel and unjustified captivity." Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said he had been held for "far too long". (© Daily Telegraph, London)