By Ulrike Putz in Jerusalem
Jerusalem's Paris Square was jammed on Tuesday evening. Thousands of Israelis poured into the streets, wanting to see with their own eyes if the news being reported was actually true: That Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted in 2006 by the radical Palestinian organization Hamas, was actually going to be freed.
The crowd assembled in front of the tent where Shalit's parents are camped. It stands in front of the Israeli prime minister's residence, where they have been demonstrating for years -- through the heat of the summer and the rain of the winter -- for the release of their son. On Tuesday night, Noam and Aviva Shalit were here once again, sitting as always on their plastic chairs. The difference this time was that the parents of the solider, who is 25 now, were actually smiling.
The Shalits are happy, their faces beaming. Indeed, the image was enough to convince the Israelis that, this time, after lengthy and at times frustrating negotiations, Shalit's release is finally at hand. Over the past years, the dashed hopes and many false reports had worn down the people of Israel. But now it appears the waiting may in fact be over. Shalit is expected to be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners currently being held in Israeli jails.
'We Will Return Gilad Healthy and Whole'
"I wonder if he even knows this himself?" one tearful Shalit supporter asked.
In a country where men and women must both complete mandatory military service, many can identify with Shalit, his parents and his siblings. Many Israelis cried with his family when, in autumn of 2009, a video showed the young recruit, who has since been promoted to the role of sergeant, looking pale but brave. They also shared the family's frustration when, in late 2009, another deal fell through. Despite pressure from the Israeli military and intelligence services, the right-wing government refused to meet the demand by Hamas to release convicted terrorists in exchange for Shalit.
This time though, things are different. On Tuesday evening, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal confirmed that the two adversaries, after years of back-and-forth, had now agreed to conditions for a prisoner exchange. "We will return Gilad healthy and whole to his family and all of Israel" during the coming days, Netanyahu said before the end of a special meeting of his cabinet to approve the deal.
Before the meeting began, he had a statement sent out over Twitter remarking: "I wish to thank the German mediator and Chancellor Merkel for their efforts to release Gilad Shalit." In recent years, a special mediator from Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, did in fact contribute significantly to the negotiations, working out the details of the prisoner trade that has now been agreed to. Officials in Berlin have always been discreet about the German role, not making any statements. But in Jerusalem, sources said the deal could not have come into existence without the German help.
It will first become apparent in the coming days just what Israel and Hamas have agreed to and what the specifics of the transfer will be. Hamas leader Mashaal spoke Tuesday night of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners who would be released in two steps. He said 450 militant Palestinians would already be released within the next week, including all 27 Palestinian women currently incarcerated. In a second step, a further 550 militant combatants would also be released within two months. Shalit is expected to be taken to Egypt before his release to Israel.
Arab Spring Increases Pressure on Israel
The fact that the deal has now taken shape is attributable to the major shift in the situation in the Middle East. Following the Arab spring, the geopolitical situation has changed dramatically -- as evidenced by Egypt's move away from its friendly ties with Israel. Such developments are placing Netanyahu's government under increased pressure. Indeed, Cairo's growing impatience with Israel may have contributed to Jerusalem's acceptance of Hamas' long-standing prisoner exchange offer. Netanyahu described it as "the best deal that we can reach at this time, a stormy time in the Middle East."
Netanyahu's government has also been facing increased resistance domestically in recent months. The country has been shaken by social protests for months now. Touching pictures of Shalit returning home could shift attention away from this social crisis, and Netanyahu and his media advisors would surely be adept at using the publicity around the soldier's release to the best effect.
Still, the success is not unconditional. Indeed, Hamas is already spinning the deal as a huge victory for themselves, saying they forced Israel into a deal they didn't want. "This is a national achievement for the whole Palestinian people," Mashaal said in a news conference. "We wanted to include as many prisoners in the deal as possible, but we couldn't free everyone," Mashaal said, speaking from exile in Damascus, Syria. A list of those set for release will be published later on Wednesday.
Palestinians Set for Release May Include Terrorists
In the Gaza Strip on Tuesday night, tens of thousands celebrated the imminent return of Palestinian prisoners. Men fired machine guns into the night sky, people on the scene reported. Parades of cars honked as they made their way through the streets of Gaza City. "It's as if FC Barcelona had won the Champions League," one person who witnessed the events said of the jubilant atmosphere.
Still, the families of those Palestinian prisoners awaiting release are likely to keep their euphoria in check for now. Gilad Shalit's parents also expressed reserve. His father said the family would wait to see how the Israeli government proceeded.
"My stomach is turning," his brother Yoel told reporters. "There is greater hope that Gilad's suffering will finally come to an end and he will finally return home."
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