More than 1,000 Palestinians will be released in exchange for Israeli Sgt Gilad Shalit who has been held by Palestinian militants since June 2006, when he was captured in a cross-border raid.
The announcement on Tuesday brought celebration both in the Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem (photo, from europe1.fr).
The Israeli cabinet passed the deal after several hours of heated debate with 26 ministers voting in favour and three opposing it.
In a national TV address Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said : “We have concluded arduous negotiations with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. He will be coming home in the next few days.”
Mr Shalit’s family has maintained a high profile campaign for his release and his detention is a very emotive issue in Israel.
But there are also many Israelis who object in principle to any mass release of prisoners after family members have been killed by Palestinian militants.
According to Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, two prominent Palestinian prisoners will not be released in the swap deal : influential Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In a statement Mr Netanyahu said : “This is a difficult decision, but leadership is tested at moments like this, on the ability to make difficult decisions.”
According the The Jerusalem Post Sgt Shalit’s parents met with President Shimon Peres on Wednesday afternoon. He told them that Mr Netanyahu made the right and courageous decision.
After thanking the Israeli PM and the ministers, the Shalits thanked the Egyptian government for mediating the deal, as well as the German government and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In a statement, Hamas, the Palestinian group which governs Gaza, said there were tens of thousands of people on the streets celebrating the deal.
In a televised address from Damascus, Syria, where he is in exile, Khaled Meshaal, the group’s leader confirmed the deal and described it as a victory for the Palestinian people.
He added that the 1,027 detainees will be released in two phases.
The first phase will take place “in one week” with the release of 450 prisoners, including all Palestinian women currently jailed in Israeli jails. 131 of them will be returned to Gaza and 110 will be sent home to the West Bank. Another 203 will be deported, with 40 barred from Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“In two months” another 550 prisoners will be freed in the second phase.
Mr Meshaal also said that the list includes 315 prisoners who have been sentenced to life, saying it was the result of negotiators giving “priority to those who have spent over 20 years” in jail.
“We were very keen for this deal to include prisoners from across different categories, from different age groups and from the West Bank and Gaza, from Jerusalem and the Golan [Heights].”
The leader of Hamas said the deal showed the unity of the Palestinian people, and vowed to fight until “the day all Palestinians imprisoned in Israel are freed”.
About 5,000 Palestinians are being held by Israel. Some have been convicted of serious crimes while others are being held without charge.
There has been several attempts to reach an agreement to free Sgt Shalit through a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, but previous talks have failed due to disagreements concerning who Israel might free. Both sides ended blaming one another.
According to Israel’s Channel 2 TV both sides had shown greater flexibility in recent talks.
On Thursday new negotiations began in Cairo under the mediation of Egyptian security and intelligence officials, and on Tuesday an agreement was signed, Mr Netanyahu said.
In a tweet the Israeli PM later thanked “the Egyptian government and its security forces for their role in mediation and concluding the deal”.
Mr Meshaal also thanked Egypt, adding that Qatar, Turkey, Syria and Germany had all been involved in the negotiations.