Israel and Hamas agree on Shalit swap

Israel and Hamas have signed a prisoner-exchange deal that will secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit "in the coming days," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Soldier held in Gaza since 2006 raid

Gilad Shalit was 19 when he was captured by Hamas-linked militants in a June 2006 raid. ((Ariel Shalit/Associated Press))

Israel and Hamas have signed a prisoner-exchange deal that will secure the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for more than five years "in the coming days," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Netanyahu told reporters late Tuesday he informed Gilad Shalit's parents, Aviva and Noam Shalit, earlier Tuesday of the deal to swap Shalit, 25, who was taken by Hamas-linked Palestinian militants in June 2006 near the border with Gaza. Two Israeli soldiers were also killed in the raid.

 The Israeli government approved the deal early Wednesday after a three-hour debate.

"There is built-in tension between the desire to return a kidnapped soldier ... and the need to preserve the security of the citizens of Israel," Netanyahu said, in comments at the opening of the cabinet meeting. "I believe we reached the best deal that we can reach at this time, a stormy time in the Middle East."

One cabinet minister who voted against the deal, Uzi Landau, said it provides "incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions."

The deal, signed Tuesday after talks through Egyptian and German mediators, will likely free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli custody and still requires approval by the Israeli cabinet, Israeli media reported.

"I do not know if the near future would have allowed us to achieve a better deal, or a deal at all, since it is very likely that this window of opportunity created in these circumstances would have finally closed, and we wouldn't have freed Gilad at all," Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Netanyahu as saying Tuesday.

Speaking in the Syrian capital, Damascus, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal confirmed the deal, which he said would see 450 Palestinian prisoners released within a week, and another 550 in a second phase two months later.

Mashaal called the prisoner swap a "national achievement" for the whole Palestinian people and said all 27 Palestinian women in Israeli prisons would be among those released.

There are unconfirmed reports that Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences in connection with the deaths of Israelis, is among the names of prisoners to be released.

Since his capture, his family has led massive protests pressuring the Israeli government to agree to a prisoner swap and publicly chastized successive administrations for an apparent unwillingness to seal a deal.

Israel, which requires its citizens to complete a period of mandatory military service, has traditionally placed a high value on securing the release of its soldiers, often releasing hundreds of enemy prisoners in exchange for the return of Israeli servicemen and women captured or killed in conflicts.

But the Israeli government has balked at previous attempts to exchange Shalit for Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted of involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis.

Shalit, a 19-year-old corporal in the Israeli army at the time of his capture who has since been promoted to staff sergeant, has since been seen and heard in audio and video messages released by Hamas. But the militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, has prevented the Red Cross from visiting the soldier, despite calling Shalit a prisoner of war.

With files from The Associated Press