After years of failed negotiations, Israel and Hamas officials said they've reached a deal to free a captured Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the Associated Press reported.
“We have concluded ardeous [sic] negotiations with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. He will be coming home in the next few days,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on Tuesday. “The agreement to release Shalit was signed in initials last Thursday and today was signed formally by the two parties.”
In June 2006, Palestinian militants captured Shalit as he crossed from Gaza while fulfilling his mandatory military service. His captivity has been an emotional cause in Israel for years. Signs bearing his name and picture are plastered all over Israeli streets; his father, Noam, has been demanding the government work toward the release of his son, sleeping outside Netanyahu’s residence and leading demonstrations. In 2009, Israel released 20 Palestinian female prisoners in exchange for a two-minute videotape proving that Shalit was alive.
"I believe we got the best deal available at this time, at this time when storms are occuring in the Middle East," Netanyahu said in Hebrew at the start of his Cabinet meeting. "I do not know if the immediate future would have [given us the opportunity] to achieve a better agreement, or any agreement at all."
Netanyahu said he briefed Shalit's parents and grandfather earlier on Tuesday. "I told them I kept my promise, and I ... will give you back your child," he said. "If all goes correctly, Gilad will return to Israel in the coming days to his family and his people."
Negotiations brokered by German and Egyptian mediators to free Shalit have broken down over the past five years. Israel has maintained that the price of freeing prisoners serving long sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis could be too high. The issue of whether to allow the prisoners to return to the West Bank or Gaza or send them into exile was also a core obstacle.
The terms of the deal--including details about which prisoners will be freed and where they will go—remain unclear.
A leader of one of the groups that captured Shalit, Mohammed al-Barem, told AP that the prisoner exchange would include 300 prisoners serving life sentences. One prisoner that Bardawil said would be returned was Amina Mona, “a young woman who lured a lovestruck Israeli teenage boy to a Palestinian city over the Internet, only to have him killed by waiting militants,” AP reported.
"There is an inherent tension between the desire to return a kidnapped soldier or civilian back home--and the need to preserve the security of Israeli citizens," Netanyahu said. Tuesday's deal, Netanyahu continued, strikes the right balance between these considerations. "I don't want to hide this from you--this is a difficult decision. My heart is with the families of terror victims. I understand their suffering.... I am one of them. But leadership is being tested right now--in the ability to make decisions that are difficult but correct."
A top Hamas official in Gaza told AP that Egypt’s interim government, in place since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, “undertook tireless efforts” to broker an agreement.
"I especially thank the Egyptian government and its security services for their rule in mediation & concluding of the deal," Netanyahu tweeted. "I wish to thank the German mediator and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel for their efforts to release Gilad Shalit."