Middle East

Q&A: Gilad Shalit release deal

After more than five years held in captivity in Gaza, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been freed in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Here are some of the main issues surrounding the saga.

How was Gilad Shalit captured?

Gilad Shalit, then 19, was abducted on 25 June 2006 by a joint force of Palestinian militants who tunnelled under the Gaza-Israel border, ambushing an Israeli army post.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed and three others were injured during the raid near the Kerem Shalom checkpoint. Two Palestinian militants also died. Sgt Shalit - then a corporal and tank gunner - was reported to have suffered shrapnel wounds.

The raid was claimed by Hamas's military wing, in league with an umbrella group called the Popular Resistance Committees which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Islam.

What happened immediately after Sgt Shalit's abduction?

Three days after the raid, having demanded Sgt Shalit's unconditional release, Israel launched its first ground invasion into Gaza since its unilateral withdrawal from the strip a year earlier.

In the days and weeks which followed, further incursions and air strikes were carried and dozens of MPs from Hamas's political wing in the West Bank were arrested.

Israel said the action was aimed at freeing Sgt Shalit and preventing rocket fire which had continued from Gaza into Israel since the 2005 withdrawal. In a month of military raids, more than 100 Palestinians died and an Israeli soldier was killed.

The situation in Gaza became overshadowed by Israel's conflict in the north with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, who seized two soldiers and killed five others on 12 July 2006.

Sgt Shalit continued to be held in a secret location and was denied any visits by the Red Cross or any other persons. Only one concrete proof of life was provided, in October 2009, when Hamas released a video of the gaunt-looking soldier holding that day's newspaper and appealing to the Israeli government to do whatever necessary to get him freed.

What is the deal which was eventually reached to free Sgt Shalit?

Israel initially refused to negotiate at all, but later entered indirect talks brokered by Egypt, with the involvement of a German mediator.

After some five years of delicate negotiations, on 11 October 2011, both Israel and Hamas announced a deal had been signed to bring the issue to an end.

Under the terms, Israel would initially release 477 Palestinian prisoners, plus another 550 after Sgt Shalit returned home.

Hamas leaders, as well as Palestinians jailed for deadly attacks against Israelis, were among those to be freed.

Freeing prisoners "with blood on their hands" - those who have been responsible for the deaths of Israelis - is a hugely emotive issue in Israel.

Hamas however failed to secure the release of Marwan Bargouti, a popular leader from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, who is widely seen as a possible successor to Mr Abbas and a figure who might bridge the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, the main Palestinian political faction.

Some prisoners have been transferred from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, while others have been sent into exile abroad.

Both sides hailed the deal as a victory.

Why is the issue so important to Israel and the Palestinians?

Israel is a highly militarised society that views itself as surrounded by hostile nations. Most parents send their sons and daughters as conscripts and many Israelis continue to serve as reservists in later life.

Gilad Shalit's capture and long incarceration was something with which all Israelis could identify, regardless of their other differences.

For Palestinians, the issue of their compatriots in prison in Israel - about 6,000 - is equally unifying. The experience of being in an Israeli prison or having a relative imprisoned is often seen as a part of the national struggle.

Hamas has vowed to continually work to secure the release of them all. The fact that Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 in exchange for one Israeli is seen as a major propaganda coup for Hamas, which had recently been overshadowed by its rival Fatah's diplomatic moves to obtain UN membership for Palestine.

How did the prisoner exchange take place?

The exchange happened on Tuesday 18 October 2011. In the morning, Israel's Supreme Court ruled against objections to the prisoner release by victims' families.

Following that decision, Gilad Shalit was taken from an undisclosed location to the Rafah Crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Simultaneously, the Palestinian prisoners were taken to the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Egypt, about 5 miles (8km) away.

Sgt Shalit was transferred into the hands of Egyptian mediators, with Israeli representatives present. Once his transfer had been confirmed, Israel released 27 female prisoners.

The Egyptians then transferred Sgt Shalit to Israel, via Kerem Shalom where he made a first phone call to his parents. He was given a brief medical examination before being flown by helicopter from Kerem Shalom to Tel Nof airbase near Tel Aviv.

At the same time, freed Palestinian prisoners destined for Gaza and exile abroad crossed into Egypt via Kerem Shalom en route to Gaza or to third countries if they were among those being deported.

Simultaneously, in the West Bank, prisoners were be taken from Camp Ofer to the Bituniya checkpoint and handed over to Palestinian officials.

Once at Tel Nof airbase, Sgt Shalit underwent further medical examinations and met family members, including his father Noam, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and army chief-of-staff Benny Gantz.

After those meetings, Mr Netanyahu gave a statement to the press, and Gilad Shalit was flown home to the Israeli village of Mitzpe Hila.

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