- (Reuters/MENA/Khalid Farid)
The Middle East has been abuzz Tuesday after an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for five years returned to the Jewish state, while hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many held for violent crimes, were released in exchange for his freedom.
Shalit, 25, was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon landing at an air base in central Israel Tuesday.
In comparison, Gaza exploded in celebrations when 477 Palestinian prisoners were freed from Israeli jails at the same time. The total number of Palestinian prisoners to be released is 1,027.
Shalit's release is a bitter-sweet moment for many Israelis, who have expressed anguish over the fact that the same prisoners being released are responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country. Their release might also increase the likelihood of future attacks on the Jewish state.
After ratification of the deal, Shalit was taken by Hamas officials from Gaza into Egypt, then turned over to Israeli officials and taken across the border. After undergoing a medical exam, the gaunt soldier spoke briefly with his family via phone and was given an Israeli army uniform to wear, according to The Washington Post.
Upon greeting him at the air base, Netanyahu embraced the young soldier and told him, "How good that you have returned home," according to Israeli media. "On this day, all of us are united in pain."
Although happy to have secured Shalit's release, Netanyahu admitted that resolving the soldier's case was one of the most difficult challenges he has had to face as prime minister. Netanyahu also said Israel had paid a "heavy price" to secure Shalit's freedom, according to The Washington Post.
The prisoner exchange was voted on and approved by the Israeli cabinet during an emergency session on Oct. 12, and the deal was later agreed upon by Hamas and Israeli officials in a Cairo hotel room, according to the Guardian. The agreement was mediated by Egypt with the assistance of Germany, Haaretz.com reports.
Twenty-six Israeli ministers voted in favor of the prisoner exchange, and three others voted against it, including Israel's National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau. According to Haaretz.com, Landau called the deal between his country and Hamas to free Shalit a "great victory for terrorism."
Meanwhile in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas leaders and relatives welcomed the first group of released prisoners with a celebration.
The freed inmates were given a welcoming ceremony by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his government headquarters in Mukatah in Ramallah.
"The issue of prisoners has always been in our minds and our hearts," Abbas told the prisoners during a crowded and jubilant welcoming ceremony, The Washington Post reports.
As some critics in Israel view the prisoner exchange as a defeat, Hamas' leaders agree and have vowed to step up their efforts to end the occupation of their homeland.