Israeli euphoria over a deal to free a soldier held for five years by Hamas gave way Wednesday to growing anxiety that 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.' — Uzi Landau, Israeli cabinet minister
"This deal will be a huge victory for terror. It will be a blow to Israel's security and deterrent capability."
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 that they may pay a heavy price for the deal.
Threats from militants
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 the exchange likely not take place before next Tuesday.
Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said 1,000 men and 27 women would be released from prison, the first 450 over the next week and the rest within two months. He said the released prisoners would include 315 who have been serving life sentences, suggesting they were convicted of attacks that caused the deaths of Israelis.
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 and videotaped statement confirming he was alive.
Hamas said Schalit's captors had informed the soldier he is going to be released shortly.
Egypt gets credit
Both Israel and Hamas credited Egypt with brokering the deal.
Schalit’s father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure by pushing for his son's freedom. On Wednesday, 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 that Israel had fulfilled its "top moral value — to save one soul in Israel."
The Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly endorsed the prisoner exchange by a 26-3 margin early Wednesday and most Israelis appear to support the deal.
"Everybody is excited," said Gilad's brother, Yoel. "It looks unreal to see the pictures that are played on TV, this news we have waited for for a long, long time, more than five years, and finally it arrived."
The deal maintains a decades-long tradition of lopsided exchanges that have come under increasing criticism in Israel. And in agreeing to go ahead it, Netanyahu made a potentially fateful choice.
Stronger hand for Hamas
The deal gives Hamas a victory that might strengthen its hand against the more moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank.
"While much of the country is rejoicing at the deal — rejoicing at the fact this one soldier is going to be brought home — there are many here who aren't so happy with the tradeoff," Sasa Petricic of CBC News reported from Jerusalem.
Petricic was speaking from a Jerusalem vigil begun five years ago in hopes of persuading the government to do something about the imprisoned Schalit.
The Palestinian Authority welcomed the agreement that will set him free.
"Palestinian people and officials are generally happy with this deal, because the release of any Palestinian prisoner is good news for the prisoners, their families and the Palestinian people in general," said authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
In Gaza, a parade-like atmosphere has prevailed since the deal was announced, and more celebrations were planned later Wednesday. Hamas officials said that nearly all of its demands had been met and that Schalit's captors had informed the soldier that he is going to be released shortly.
The 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 and faction leader Ahmed Saadat were not included. 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 but is widely touted as a future Palestinian president.