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Euphoria mixed with anxiety in Israel over swap of Palestinian prisoners for captured soldier
JERUSALEM (AP) ' Israeli euphoria over a deal to free a soldier held for five years by Hamas gave way Wednesday to growing anxiety that the swap for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted of murder, could lead to new violence.
When Israelis first got word Tuesday night of the deal to free Sgt. Gilad Schalit, they erupted in spontaneous celebrations. But that joy was tempered when they learned that about 300 Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis would be among the 1,027 released in exchange.
"If many terrorists are released in this deal, it will be an immense incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions," said Israeli Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, one of just three who voted against the swap. "This deal will be a huge victory for terror. It will be a blow to Israel's security and deterrent capability," he added. Hawkish opposition groups warned of a new violent Palestinian uprising led by those released.
The Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal pledged Tuesday night that those released "will return to ... the national struggle," a comment that only stoked Israeli fears that they may pay a heavy price for the deal.
In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where Schalit is believed to be held, militants went even further, threatening to capture more Israeli soldiers.
"Gilad Schalit won't be the last (soldier), as long as the occupation holds Palestinian prisoners," said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas' military wing.
Mashaal visited Cairo Wednesday evening to finalize details of the swap with the head of Egyptian intelligence and Palestinian officials from the rival Hamas and Fatah groups.
Palestinians say Israel holds about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners while Israel only confirms it has about 5,000.
The final details of the deal are still being ironed out.
An Israeli official said it would likely not take place before next Tuesday. Under Israeli law, the list of prisoners to be freed must be posted publicly, beginning a 48-hour period for the public to file legal challenges. The Justice Ministry said it will post the list on Sunday morning after a long, Jewish holiday weekend that begins at sundown Wednesday.
Schalit was captured more than five years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza and his plight has captivated Israelis, who have held large rallies for his release. Throughout his captivity, Hamas refused to allow the Red Cross to visit him and only released a brief audio recording and videotaped statement confirming that he was alive.
Hamas said Schalit's captors had informed the soldier he is going to be released shortly.
Both Israel and Hamas credited Egypt with brokering the deal, which also is an important milestone for that country's new military rulers who took power after the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
The Israeli Cabinet overwhelmingly endorsed the exchange by a 26-3 margin early Wednesday and most Israelis appear to support the deal.
The soldier's father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure by pushing for his son's freedom. Following the vote, he announced that he was taking down the protest tent erected outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem in the months after Schalit's capture and heading back to his home in northern Israel. First, though, the family met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday.
Peres commended Netanyahu's "bold decision" saying that Israel had fulfilled its "top moral value ' to save one soul in Israel."
In Gaza, there was a carnival-like atmosphere with Palestinians flooding the streets to celebrate the deal. The plight of prisoners is equally emotional among Palestinians. Nearly every Palestinian has a relative who has been imprisoned by Israel, or has spent time behind bars himself.
"This is great news, no doubt, and I think that the success of the deal came due to the resilience and unflinching determination of the resistance to see to it that all our demands are met," said Akram Nimr, a 52-year-old Palestinian shop owner in Gaza who previously served time in an Israeli prison for belonging to the Islamic Jihad militant group.
"Israel wouldn't agree to free that many prisoners unless it was forced to," he added.
Hamas officials said that nearly all of the group's demands had been met.
Yoram Cohen, head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, insisted that the deal only became viable after Hamas backed down from some of its key demands, including the release of top militants. He said the most prominent names, including uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, faction leader Ahmed Saadat and Hamas bombmaker Abdullah Barghouti, were not included.
Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. Marwan Barghouti was the top local commander of Fatah, the movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when he was arrested in 2002 and convicted of a role in deadly attacks against Israelis. He is serving multiple life terms but nevertheless is widely touted as a future Palestinian president.
Hamas officials confirmed Wednesday these names were not part of the deal.
The dilemma in Israel over the charged deal was reflected in Wednesday's newspapers. Alongside beaming headlines reading "Gilad is Coming Home" and "Homeward Bound" were columns warning of dire consequences.
"Yesterday was an evening of capitulation, an evening in which Israel got down on its knees in front of Hamas, an evening in which Israeli staying power failed, and faintheartedness overcame the toughness that is required in our neighborhood," wrote Maariv columnist Ben Caspit.
Nahum Barnea, the daily Yediot Ahronot's senior commentator, countered that Israel has no choice but to agree.
"The price is excessive, the risks are great and the precedent is displeasing. But a state that for five years was unable to rescue a soldier from captivity by other means has no choice but to pay the price," he wrote. "The alternative ' to let him die in captivity ' is unacceptable. It does not meet the minimum conditions of the Israeli tribe."
Israel Kauders, a 29-year-old Jerusalem resident, said he was completely split.
"On the one hand, there is the chance to free Gilad, knowing that he is alive and we can bring him back. On the other, releasing 1,000 terrorists who are sure to kill again, I don't know what I would do," he said. "I'm glad I wasn't the one who had to make that decision."
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.