Hamas leader praises Israel’s ‘strength’ in prisoner swap

High price paid for single soldier

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JERUSALEM — A senior Hamas official praised the “strength” Israel showed in a prisoner exchange that swapped more than 1,000 Palestinian convicts for one captured Israeli soldier.

“To do what Israel did shows the value Israeli society places on human life,” Salah al-Arouri, a member of the Islamist militant group’s politburo, said this week on Israel Radio from Damascus, Syria.

“This is a pillar of Israel’s strength — to wage a war to free one man, to free a thousand prisoners for him,” he said, referring to the Jewish state’s efforts to free Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit from his Hamas captors. “This is the strength of a society and an army.”

The Hamas leader’s praise for the cohesiveness of Israeli society echoes sentiments heard elsewhere in the Arab world since Sgt. Schalit’s release:

• Israel Channel Two television quoted columnist K. al-Ahmed, writing in the al-Qabas newspaper in Kuwait, as saying: “I wish I were Gilad Schalit; I wish my country cared so much about me.”

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit walks down the stairs into his home in Mitzpe Hila, northern Israel, after over five years in captivity, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011.  (AP Photo/ IDF)

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Released Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit walks down the stairs into his home ... more >

• Syrian blogger Soori Madsoos posted online: “I just envy [the Israeli] government because it cares for its citizens. Our government kills us like animals and our Arab neighbors say it’s just an internal matter.”

Mr. al-Arouri’s surprising interview marked the first time a Hamas official had agreed to talk with Israeli media. Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Israel Radio interviewer Gal Berger explained to listeners that Mr. al-Arouri, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had spent years in Israeli prisons for terrorist activities, is familiar with Israelis and is at ease speaking with them.

“As someone from the outside, as an enemy, I would prefer that Israel abandon that value, even at the cost of not freeing our prisoners,” Mr. al-Arouri said in Hebrew.

Israel last week turned over to Hamas 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Schalit, who had been captured in 2006 and whose plight had gripped the collective attention of the Jewish state.

Mr. al-Arouri was a member of the four-man Hamas team that negotiated Sgt. Schalit’s release, and said the Israeli soldier did not encounter violence during his imprisonment except perhaps on the day he was captured.

Sgt. Schalit’s captors had instructions not to harm him, Mr. al-Arouri said, adding that the young captive at times would talk with his guard and even laugh with them.

“But Gilad also endured difficult moments when he missed his family,” he said, adding that Sgt. Schalit looked pale and weak when he emerged from captivity because of the mental stress of his isolation, not a lack of food.

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