Israel has transferred the first 477 prisoners to Palestinian territories now that Sgt. Gilad Schalit is back in Israel safe and sound. The Israeli military and Palestinians waiting to greet released prisoners have clashed on the West Bank.
A number Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli troops at the Betonia border checkpoint. It has been reported that some relatives and others who came to support the returned inmates began throwing stones at soldiers, who retaliated by deploying tear gas and water cannons.
As the first released Palestinian prisoners out of almost 500 crossed the border with Egypt and entered the Gaza Strip, they were met by thousands of happy people carrying flowers. Relatives were crying, kissing and hugging their loved ones, who they were seeing for the first time after the many years away from each other.
Later, the welcome turned into a rally with people waving scores of green Hamas flags and a few Fatah flags around a stage decorated with Gilad Schalit’s portrait. The crowd was chanting “The people want a new Gilad!" says the Associated Press, suggesting this was incitement for militants to abduct more Israeli soldiers for the sake of the thousands of other Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Mukhaimer abu Saada, a political analyst from al-Azhar University in Gaza, says there has been too much international focus on one Israeli soldier rather than the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
“The international community, as well as Israeli media, was very busy over the past five years bringing the issue of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to the attention of the world community,” he said. “But [the media] has not been saying much about the Palestinian prisoners. Unfortunately the Israeli media and supporters of Israel all over the world were much stronger in bringing the issue of Gilad Shalit, more than bringing the issue of more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners.”
Ex-prisoners were also warmly greeted in Ramallah on the West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority was also present.
Abbas said he thanked God for the return and safety of the former prisoners, calling them “freedom-fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.”
Still, instead of going home, ten of the released Palestinians will be sent to Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday a plane was en route to Cairo to collect them. According to Reuters, some 30 more of the released Palestinians are being sent to Syria and Qatar.
On Tuesday morning, the transfer of the first group of Palestinian prisoners to be released took off in heavily guarded convoys. Having arrived at Kerem Shalom (a border crossing near the meeting of the Gaza Strip-Israel-Egypt borders) they were taken to Egypt, where authorities there monitored their arrival in Gaza. All those agreed to be released within the first phase of the swap arrived at the Ofer Prison near Ramallah.
The vehicles that left a jail in central Israel carried female inmates, most of whom were to be freed in the West Bank. Egyptian security, under the terms of mediating the deal, accompanied them. All border crossings were declared closed military zones in preparation for the transaction.
Key initial releases
Yehia Sanwar: a founder of Hamas militant wing. Multiple life sentences
Mohammed al-Sharatha: a leader of the elite Hamas 101 unit. Multiple life sentences
Nasser Iteima: took part in Netanya hotel bombing, leaving 30 people dead (2002)
Walid Anjes: involved in Moment café bombing in Jerusalem (2002)
Jihad Yaghmour: participated in execution of Israeli soldier Nachson Waxman (1994)
Twenty-seven females and 96 males were taken to Ofer prison in the West Bank. Six male prisoners will be released to their homes in Israel. Three will be released from the Megido prison, two from the Ayalon prison, and one from the Katzrin jail in the Golan Heights.
Among people being freed are those who have been imprisoned without trial. Thus, a Ukrainian woman had to spend nine years in an Israeli jail because her husband was charged with terrorism. Her mother could not hold back her emotions when talking to RT.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the released Palestinians that if they return to violence they will be punished.
“We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable,” he said.
Around 300 of those freed have been serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis. Families of militant attacks victims were outraged to learn about the deal between the Israeli and Palestinian sides swapping Gilad Shalit for 1,027 imprisoned Palestinians.
Earlier this week, after the list was published, Israel’s radio and television stations turned to detailing the deadly attacks the pardoned prisoners were convicted of. Many of them were jailed for plotting suicide bombings or gun attacks.
Israelis who objected to the release of the prisoners had 48 hours to appeal to Israel’s highest court after the official list of Palestinians to be freed was published on Sunday.
Several families of victims of militant attacks filed court appeals against the prisoner swap. Israel’s Supreme Court had a hearing on them on Monday. Relatives of those killed in Palestinian attacks were present in the courtroom as well as Gilad Shalit’s father. But the deal, having won strong public support, was unlikely to have been canceled and Tuesday saw the start of it.
However, according to the Almagor Terror Victims’ Association, the swap dishonors the victims of Palestinian attacks and will only lead to more kidnappings and violence. The Association’s petition to the High Court, aimed at canceling – or at least delaying – the deal, said 48 hours was too short a time to scrutinize the list and prepare an appeal.