One of the largest prisoner swaps in Israeli-Palestinian history began Tuesday, as army Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit returned home after Israel secured his freedom in return for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
The case of Sgt. Schalit, who was captured by Hamas in a 2006 cross-border raid near the Gaza Strip and held there since, has captivated the Jewish state.
The deal to free him was the culmination of five years of intense negotiations that repeatedly broke down, largely over differences between Israel and Hamas about which Palestinian prisoners would be released.
In a speech Tuesday at the air force base where he welcomed Sgt. Schalit back to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the soldier's release had been one of his central goals since he took office in 2009.
“Today that mission was accomplished," Mr. Netanyahu said, warning that released terrorists who engage in future attacks against Israel “do so at their own risk."
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, chief of Israeli military intelligence from 2006 to 2010, was intimately involved in Israel's deliberations about Sgt. Schalit. The retired military leader said in an interview that the prisoner swap presented the Jewish state with a “tragic dilemma."
“Israel is a small society - everybody knows everybody - and Gilad Schalit became a symbol, he became a member of every Israeli family, and Israeli solidarity is very important," Gen. Yadlin said, adding that because young Israelis are required to serve in the military, the government has a “moral obligation to bring them back at any price."
“On the other hand, there's a moral obligation to justice vis a vis murderers, the moral obligation toward future victims of freed terrorists that may go back to business or may educate another generation of terrorists," he said.
Gen. Yadlin said he had opposed “much more problematic" exchanges during his tenure, but he noted “important achievements" in the current deal, such as Hamas' willingness to let some prisoners be deported and to ease its demands for the release of some of its most high-profile terrorists.
“The numbers are not important," Gen. Yadlin said, noting that the principle of Israel releasing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sgt, Schalit had been agreed to four years ago. “What's important are the names, and the real big names are staying in prison."
Those names include Hamas military commander Ibrahim Hamed, militia leader Marwan Barghouti, and the masterminds of the suicide bombings of a Tel Aviv disco in 2001 and on a Passover Seder in Netanya in 2002.
Despite widespread Israeli unease about releasing other convicted terrorists, a poll taken by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth showed that Israelis supported the deal by 79 percent to 14 percent.
The Palestinians, for whom the release of prisoners has long been a top priority, also celebrated the deal, welcoming the first 477 Palestinians at ceremonies in the West Bank.
“Dear brothers and sisters, your families in Palestinian territories and around the world are looking at you now and are happy that you are being released," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at a rally in Ramallah. “I ask Allah to forgive these martyrs."
World leaders welcomed the release of Sgt. Schalit, whose captivity had emerged as an obstacle to peace efforts.
"We are pleased that a long ordeal has ended for Gilad Schalit," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.
The release of Sgt. Schalit, a dual Israeli-French citizen, also was hailed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said the day was “a huge relief for France."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.