Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit returned to Israel Tuesday after being held captive for over five years in a Hamas prison. Schalit, now 25, was 19 years old in June 2006 when Hamas militants used a tunnel system under the border between Gaza and Israel to ambush his tank and abduct the soldier. Today, Schalit’s freedom is part of a prisoner swap that will include the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — 477 of which were freed Tuesday. The remaining Palestinian prisoners are expected to be released two months from now.
Schalit gave a brief interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his entry into the neighboring country, angering Israeli officials who called the interview a violation of the agreement for his release. Armed Hamas militants were reportedly in the interview area and one even stood behind Schalit’s chair wearing a black face mask, raising questions about the purpose of the interview. After years in captivity, the first images of the 25-year-old showed the world that he is pale and gaunt due to lack of sun exposure and malnutrition.
Gilad Schalit arrives in Israel after five years in captivity.
Fueling the controversy regarding the justification of the agreement that returned Gilad to Israel, nearly 300 of the 477 prisoners freed on Tuesday were serving life sentences, and their release seems to upend a long-standing Israeli pledge to not free those with “blood on their hands.” Nevertheless, according to polls, the deal was supported by roughly 80 percent of Israelis.
In a short address after greeting Gilad Schalit in Israel, Netanyahu noted that his country is bound by a moral tradition to do everything possible to bring its soldiers home safely. At the same time, however, the PM issued a warning to the freed militants: “We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable,” he said.
Meanwhile, at a rally in Gaza City welcoming home the released prisoners, tens of thousands of Palestinians marked Israel’s acceptance of the heavily padded Hamas deal by chanting, “The people want a new Gilad, the people want a new Gilad.” Indeed, Tuesday marks a bittersweet day for Israel.