The Palestinian Hamas has freed abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the release from Israeli jails of 477 Palestinians as part of a prisoner swap deal that is likely to resonate positively in the rapidly changing Arab world.

In the early hours on Tuesday, buses containing Palestinian prisoners drove into Egypt, from where they left for Gaza and the West Bank, where jubilant relatives and residents had made elaborate arrangements to welcome them. The prisoners freed on Tuesday form the first batch that has benefited from the deal, which provides for the release of over 1,000 jailed Palestinians. Another 550 Palestinians are to be released next month. The buses first crossed into Egypt from Kerem Shalom, before heading for the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border.

But before the vehicles began their journey, Sargent Shalit, abducted by a Hamas affiliate in June 2006, had been handed over to the Egyptian authorities at the Rafah crossing. Israeli authorities then flew him by helicopter to theTel Nof air base in central Israel, where he was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and re-united with his family.

Earlier, speaking on Egyptian television at Rafah, Sgt. Shalit showed no signs of bitterness towards his captors, despite his five years in confinement. “I will be very happy if all Palestinian prisoners are freed so they can go back to their families [...] I hope this deal could help reach peace between Israelis and the Palestinians and strengthen cooperation,” he said.

At a press conference at the Israel airbase, Mr. Netanyahu took credit for freeing Sgt. Shalit. “Two years and a half ago, I returned to my post as Prime Minister and one of the most important, complex missions I found on my desk was to return Gilad Shalit home alive and well,” he said. “Today that mission has been accomplished.”

After further medical checks, Sgt. Shalit was declared fit enough to be flown to his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel.

Accomplishment

In Gaza and the West Bank, the release of the prisoners was being viewed as a solid national accomplishment. Hamas authorities had set up a giant podium at Gaza's al-Katiba Park, where the returning prisoners were accorded a rousing welcome. Apart from the top leadership, one of the returning prisoners, Yehya Sinwar, a co-founder of an early security wing of Hamas, was also expected to address the assembled crowds. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told Al-Jazeera television that Egypt had guaranteed his group that Israel would not violate the prisoner-swap agreement.

In the West Bank, the Fatah leadership set in motion three days of raucous celebrations. Addressing a cheering crowd in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the former detainees as “freedom fighters”. Significantly, in a rare show of national unity, Mr. Abbas accompanied by Hamas leader Hassan Youssef, addressed supporters jointly.

Two-stage swap

Mr. Abbas revealed that Israel had promised him to release more prisoners in the aftermath of the two-stage swap.

“We hope soon to see [Marwan] Barghouti and [Ahmed] Saadat, as well as every prisoner freed,” Mr.Abbas said referring to two top-rung Palestinian leaders who are currently in prison.

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