Kerem Shalom Crossing, Israel. Captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was on Tuesday freed from five years of Hamas captivity and entered Egypt in a move set to prompt the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners.
“He was transferred to Egypt by Hamas … and an Israeli colonel will check his state of health,” an Israeli military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Afterwards, he will be transferred to Israel.”
The news was confirmed by a source close to Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, one of the groups involved in the capture of Shalit in June 2006.
“Shalit was handed over to the Egyptian side but he won’t be given to the Israelis before the arrival of all the Palestinian prisoners” in Egypt, she said, indicating the initial handover had taken place at 8:15 a.m.
She said the soldier had been accompanied to Egypt by several Brigades members who would stay with him “until his transfer to the Israeli side” which would happen only after “the arrival of all the Palestinian prisoners on the Egyptian side.”
So far, there has been no word on the release of any prisoners, AFP correspondents said, with the transfer of 477 Palestinian detainees to begin the moment Shalit was transferred to Israel.
Under terms of the long-awaited deal signed last week between Israel and its sworn enemy Hamas, the Jewish state will free a total of 1,027 prisoners to secure the release of the now 25-year-old soldier.
Shalit has been held by militants in Gaza for more than five years and the deal marks the highest price ever paid for the release of one person.
And if all goes to plan, it will be the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier has been returned to the Jewish state alive.
Tuesday’s complex operation, which began before dawn, will see Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinians who were serving life sentences for deadly attacks.
Earlier an Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that all the prisoners destined for Gaza and those to be deported overseas had reached the Kerem Shalom crossing at the southernmost point of the Israel-Gaza border.
“The third (and final) convoy of prisoners has arrived, everything is going to plan,” army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told AFP, denying there was any delay. She had earlier said the prisoners would enter Gaza around 6:30 a.m.
Some 297 prisoners are to be released into Gaza, leaving Israel through Kerem Shalom, then being driven along the border to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing where they would be greeted by top Hamas figures from the Damascus-based leadership, including exiled chief Khaled Meshaal.
Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh was also waiting to greet them at the crossing, an AFP correspondent said.
“The operation to return Shalit to the Israeli side will take place at the moment we are assured that all the prisoners have arrived at the Egyptian border,” spokesman Izzat al-Rishq told Hamas’s Al Aqsa television.
Another 40 prisoners who are to be deported overseas will remain in Egypt before being sent to host countries, which include Turkey, Syria and Qatar.
Emotions were running high across Israel, where Shalit, held for over five years, has enormous symbolic importance.
And Palestinian across the West Bank and Gaza were also preparing to give a heroes’ welcome to the returning prisoners.
Shalit was a 19-year-old corporal on duty along the Gaza border when he was captured on June 25 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups, including Hamas.
Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.
After entering Israel, Shalit will be flown to Tel Nof airbase in southern Israel where he will meet with his family and meet Israeli leaders.
Shalit’s parents Noam and Aviva, his brother Yoel, sister Hadass and his grandfather have already arrived at the airbase where they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the premier’s bureau said.