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Euphoria mixed with anxiety in Israel over swap

Euphoria mixed with anxiety in Israel over swap

October 13th, 2011 in News

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli euphoria over a deal to free a soldier held for five years by Hamas gave way Wednesday to growing anxiety the swap for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted of murder, could lead to new violence.

When Israelis first got word Tuesday night of the deal to free Sgt. Gilad Schalit, they erupted in spontaneous celebrations. But that joy was tempered when they learned that about 300 Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis would be among the 1,027 released in exchange.

"If many terrorists are released in this deal, it will be an immense incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions," said Israeli Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, one of just three who voted against the swap. "This deal will be a huge victory for terror. It will be a blow to Israel's security and deterrent capability," he added. Hawkish opposition groups warned of a new violent Palestinian uprising led by those released.

The Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal pledged Tuesday night that those released "will return to ... the national struggle," a comment that only stoked Israeli fears they may pay a heavy price for the deal.

In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where Schalit is believed to be held, militants went even further, threatening to capture more Israeli soldiers.

"Gilad Schalit won't be the last (soldier), as long as the occupation holds Palestinian prisoners," said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas' military wing.

Palestinians say Israel holds about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners while Israel only confirms it has about 5,000.

The final details of the deal are still being ironed out.

An Israeli official said it would likely not take place before next Tuesday. Under Israeli law, the list of prisoners to be freed must be posted publicly, beginning a 48-hour period for the public to file legal challenges. The Justice Ministry said it will post the list on Sunday morning after a long, Jewish holiday weekend that begins at sundown Wednesday.

Hamas officials said Mashaal was heading to Cairo on Wednesday to finalize details of the swap.

Schalit was captured more than five years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza and his plight has captivated Israelis, who have held large rallies for his release. Throughout his captivity, Hamas refused to allow the Red Cross to visit him and only released a brief audio recording and videotaped statement confirming he was alive.

Hamas said Schalit's captors had informed the soldier he is going to be released shortly.

Both Israel and Hamas credited Egypt with brokering the deal, which also is an important milestone for that country's new military rulers who took power after the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

The Israeli Cabinet overwhelmingly endorsed the exchange by a 26-3 margin early Wednesday and most Israelis appear to support the deal.

The soldier's father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure by pushing for his son's freedom. Following the vote, he announced he was taking down the protest tent erected outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem in the months after Schalit's capture and heading back to his home in northern Israel. First, though, the family met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday.

Peres commended Netanyahu's "bold decision" saying Israel had fulfilled its "top moral value - to save one soul in Israel."

In Gaza, there was a carnival-like atmosphere with Palestinians flooding the streets to celebrate the deal. The plight of prisoners is equally emotional among Palestinians. Nearly every Palestinian has a relative who has been imprisoned by Israel, or has spent time behind bars himself.

"This is great news, no doubt, and I think that the success of the deal came due to the resilience and unflinching determination of the resistance to see to it that all our demands are met," said Akram Nimr, a 52-year-old Palestinian shop owner in Gaza who previously served time in an Israeli prison for belonging to the Islamic Jihad militant group.

"Israel wouldn't agree to free that many prisoners unless it was forced to," he added.

Hamas officials said nearly all of the group's demands had been met.

Yoram Cohen, head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, insisted that the deal only became viable after Hamas backed down from some of its key demands, including the release of top militants. He said the most prominent names, including uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, faction leader Ahmed Saadat and Hamas bombmaker Abdullah Barghouti, were not included.

Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. Marwan Barghouti was the top local commander of Fatah, the movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when he was arrested in 2002 and convicted of a role in deadly attacks against Israelis. He is serving multiple life terms but nevertheless is widely touted as a future Palestinian president.

Hamas officials confirmed Wednesday these names were not part of the deal.