Israelis subdued over prisoner swap; Hamas parties
TEL AVIV -- Kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit returned home on Tuesday looking pale and rail thin to a country bracing itself for fallout from a prisoner swap that has emboldened the fiery militant Palestinian faction Hamas.
A subdued Israeli homecoming ceremony for Schalit stood in stark contrast with the mood in the Gaza Strip, where buses carrying the first of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed as part of the exchange were escorted by heavily armed Hamas fighters.
Hamas declared yesterday a holiday, and a mural depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing to the swap as a gunman kicked his face into the ground. A spokesman for Hamas military arm suggested that the group would continue to seek opportunities to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
As busloads of freed Palestinians arrived in the West Bank, residents waved Hamas flags, a rare sight in the Palestinian enclave where the rival Fatah wing has traditionally been more popular.
The exchange appears to have undermined the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the more moderate Fatah leader, while raising the profile of Hamas, which negotiated the exchange through Egyptian intermediaries.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said signing off on the deal had been "a very difficult decision," and he alluded to possible challenges ahead. "I want to make it clear: We will continue to fight terrorism," he said. "Any released terrorists who returns to terrorism" will be dealt with.
Schalit, 25, looked frail and dazed five years after Hamas fighters ambushed his tank, killed two of his comrades and dragged him into the Gaza Strip in 2006. The captive soldier had little contact with the outside world, other than occasional access to radio and television news in Arabic, his father said.
"I thought that I would find myself in this situation many more years," Schalit, who appeared somewhat dazed, said in a television interview with Egyptian state television, his only public remarks.