- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

JERUSALEM | Israel and Hamas have reached a deal to free an Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, officials from both sides said Tuesday.

The deal caps five years of painful negotiations that repeatedly have collapsed in fingerpointing and violence. It would bring home Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 by Palestinian militants who burrowed into Israel and dragged him into Gaza. Little has been known about his fate since then.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an urgent meeting Tuesday night with his Cabinet to approve the deal, said an Israeli official, who spoke on the condition pending a formal announcement.

Hamas officials and media outlets also confirmed the deal.

The agreement would exchange Sgt. Schalit, 25, for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israel previously had balked at Hamas‘ demands because some of the prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.

Other sticking points in the past have been whether prisoners would be allowed to return home to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or instead be sent into exile.

Details of the deal were not immediately available.

A Hamas delegation led by a top official, Mahmoud Zahar, arrived in Cairo Monday night from the group’s headquarters in Syria. The deal would be implemented within days, said Ezzat Rishq, a Hamas official in the delegation.

Sgt. Schalit’s plight has drawn the attention of Israel, where military service is mandatory for Jewish citizens, and people identify with the Schalit family’s anguish.

Hamas has allowed no access to Sgt. Schalit, and released only a brief audio recording and a videotaped statement early in his five years in captivity.

The plight of Palestinian prisoners is deeply emotional among Palestinians.

Almost every Palestinian has a relative who served time in an Israeli prison, and Palestinians routinely hold large demonstrations where they hold up posters of their imprisoned loved ones.

Announcement of the deal coincided with a hunger strike launched by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners seeking better conditions.

The prisoners had been demanding the restoration of key privileges, such as having Arabic TV channels and being allowed to take university courses, which have been stripped since Sgt. Schalit’s capture.

It was unknown whether the leader of the hunger strike, Ahmed Saadat, or the most prominent prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, would be included in the deal.

Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. Barghouti was the top local commander of Fatah, the movement of 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.

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