Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap deal took place Tuesday amidst tears and jovial cheers

Hamas says lifting siege off Gaza is part of deal

President Mahmoud Abbas: More deals to liberate prisoners underway, Palestinian reconciliation to materialize

China pledges to back efforts to resume negotiations

Sarkozy says it is silly to talk about Jewish state

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, looking pale but cheerful, on Tuesday returned to Israel after five years of Hamas captivity, sparking the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners under a landmark swap deal.

“Gilad has returned home,” the Israeli Army’s chief spokesman Brigadier Gen. Yoav Mordechai told reporters at Kerem Shalom also on Tuesday, describing his state of health as “good and satisfactory.”

Shortly after the announcement, Agence France-Presse correspondents in the West Bank and Gaza reported seeing the first of 477 Palestinian prisoners being released to scenes of joy and celebration, with thousands of family members welcoming them with tears and embraces.

In Israel, Shalit’s arrival was kept far from the glare of the media, with the only glimpse of him being several seconds of footage from Egyptian state television, which showed him wearing a black baseball cap and a loose gray shirt.

Militants in Gaza had held the 25-year-old for more than five years and the deal, which involved the release of a total of 1,027 Palestinians, marked the highest price ever paid for the release of one person.

His return to Israel marked the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier had been brought back alive to the Jewish state.

Within minutes of the Israeli announcement, Egyptian state television began broadcasting a pre-recorded interview with Shalit, who could be seen smiling as he answered questions.

“I am very emotional. I haven’t seen people in a long time. I missed my family,” he said in Hebrew, which was dubbed into Arabic.

“I missed seeing people and talking to them,” he added.

Shortly after his arrival, Shalit was flown to Tel Nof Airbase near Tel Aviv, where he was to be reunited with his family and also meet top Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

In Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, thousands of excited family members gathered to welcome the 296 newly-released prisoners home, many of whom could be seen wearing green Hamas sashes and wiping tears from their eyes.

After their arrival, they were to travel in convoy to Gaza City where 200,000 people were waiting to welcome them in a mass celebration organized by the ruling Hamas movement.

In the West Bank, there were also scenes of jubilation with thousands of people welcoming the 117 detainees home, waving Palestinian flags and cheering as they got off four buses outside the Muqataa presidential compound.

“Your sacrifices and your efforts and your work have not been in vain. You have sacrificed and fought,” Abbas told the crowd.

“Your cause has been and remains in our hearts. God willing we will see every single prisoner, male and female, return to their homeland,” he said.

The Palestinians might have welcomed their returning prisoners as heroes, but in Israel their release caused much soul-searching as hundreds of them were serving life sentences for carrying out deadly attacks.

Israeli officials have acknowledged that the deal will be painful for the bereaved relatives, but said that the agreement was the best accord that could be reached.

Under the deal, 133 Palestinians from Gaza, 117 from the West Bank, and 15 from east Jerusalem will be allowed to return to their homes, although some of them will be under security restrictions.

Another 163 detainees will be exiled to Gaza, although 18 of them will be able to return home after a period of three years.

Another 40 are being exiled to Turkey, Syria and Qatar, Hamas officials said, while seven Arab Israelis will be sent home, along with one Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who will be sent to Jordan.

A second group of 550 prisoners is to be released in the coming two months, although the names have yet to be decided.

Shalit was a 19-year-old corporal on duty along the Gaza border when militants from three Gaza-based groups, including Hamas, captured him on June 25, 2006.

Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.

Hamas political leader, Mahmoud Zahhar, told Israeli daily Haaretz, that the prisoner-swap deal reached indirectly between Hamas and Israel includes lifting the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip.

Zahhar added that this issue was agreed upon when the German mediator started his role in the prisoner-exchange talks. “This is still valid under the current agreement,” he said.

The Hamas leader further stated that the deal to release prisoner-of-war Gilad Shalit, in return for releasing more than a thousand Palestinian detainees, also includes a section obliging Israel to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian detainees, adding that Gaza Strip families of the detainees will be allowed to visit their beloved ones.

After Shalit was captured on June 26th, 2006, Israel canceled all visitation rights to the families of political prisoners who resided within the Gaza Strip.

Zahhar also insisted that Israel will have to ease the restrictions on border terminals leading to Gaza, including travel from Gaza to the West Bank via Israel.

Moreover, he stated that the deal incorporated the increasing of exports from the Gaza Strip to Israel and abroad.

Meanwhile, officials at the Israeli Defense Ministry stated that the Shalit deal represents a shift in the relations between Hamas and Israel, adding that in recent months Israel started easing the siege on Gaza as part of an unofficial ceasefire between Hamas and Tel Aviv.

President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Tuesday that the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had an agreement with the Israeli government to release an equal number of prisoners freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit once the present swap is completed.

Abbas was speaking during a celebration to welcome prisoners released from Israeli jails.

"We had an agreement with the Israeli government to release the same number of prisoners released for Shalit after the swap is completed," he said.

"We urge the Israeli government to stand up to this agreement and fulfill its promise," he said.

"A breakthrough on the issue of the prisoners in the Israeli jails will take place very soon," he stressed.

Addressing the released prisoners, Abbas said that their efforts, sacrifices, and suffering will not go waste. "You will see the results of your sacrifices and suffering in the Palestinian independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

"The coming round of negotiations will be based on the 1967 borders for the independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Israeli colonial activities should be halted and the issue of the prisoners is on top of the leadership's priority," he said.

Commenting on the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, Abbas said, "I am telling you that the Palestinian reconciliation will be accomplished very soon."

China pledged support on Tuesday for international efforts to resume negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians at an early date.

"It is a key period now for the peace process in the Middle East," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a daily press briefing, adding China hopes that all parties concerned make coordinated efforts to remove barriers and create conditions for the resumption of the talks.

Reports say that Middle East Quartet mediators will hold a meeting in Jerusalem on Oct. 26 with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss the resumption of direct negotiations. The Quartet comprises the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks became stalled in September 2010, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

During the briefing, Liu also welcomed the implementation of a prisoner-swap deal between the two sides.

Israeli authorities on Tuesday morning began releasing Arab and Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas since 2006.

According to a deal reached last week between Israel and Hamas, Israel will release a total of 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners in exchange for Shalit, with the first group of 477 prisoners being released on Tuesday.

The spokesman said the implementation of the deal will help to ease tensions between the two sides, adding that China appreciates the efforts made by Egypt and other parties in the process.

"We hope that the Israelis and the Palestinians will continue taking constructive measures to ease the situation, reduce disputes and resume the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an early date," he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has always described himself as a true friend of Israel. However, according to unusual statements attributed to him in the French magazine Le Canard Enchaîne, he unequivocally sides with the Palestinians.

The paper quotes comments made by the French leader during a cabinet meeting held upon his return from last month's UN General Assembly, Yedioth Aharonoth reported.

"It is silly to talk about a Jewish state," Sarkozy said while referring to the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state. "It would be like saying that this table is Catholic. There are two million Arabs in Israel."

Sarkozy is also quoted as saying that "the US has been asking (Mahmoud) Abbas for years to come to the negotiating table.

He is willing to do it because he is a statesman. Netanyahu, on the other hand, never fails to disappoint us," Sarkozy said in what appears to be a cynical tone.

"Only now, he announced the construction of 1,100 housing units in the Arab part of Jerusalem," Sarkozy added.

According to the report, the French president told the ministers that he fully supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. "The Palestinians have been waiting for a state they deserve for 60 years now," he said. "Is it not fair that Palestine is recognized by the UN even in an observer status?"

Le Canard Enchaîne is well-known for its satirical tone and exposes many controversies. However, some in Paris were surprised by the report claiming that different voices have been coming out of Sarkozy's circle as of late.

The Élysée Palace did not issue a response the report.