A tired and gaunt Gilad Shalit was met with celebration in his homeland after his family's struggle over five years to have Hamas free the terrorist group's captive. The 25-year-old sergeant first class had been captured in June 2006 when Hamas conducted a raid at the Israeli border where two other Israeli soldiers were killed.
In exchange, Israel agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in several stages, starting with 477 freed on Tuesday. This is not the first time Israel has released prisoners, but the exchange rate of 1,027 to one seems to have bolstered Hamas leaders' bravado for all the wrong reasons.
"The people want a new Gilad!" a crowd in Gaza shouted after one Hamas official promised other Palestinian prisoners would be freed "by any means necessary." Wrong. The people should want peace and a compromise that would assure Palestinians and Israelis would have two nations thrive side by side.
Yet in many respects Israel made the right decision, showing the world that the Middle East's only true democracy is not an obstacle to peace in the region. The United Nations should take notice. Unfortunately, key nations such as Turkey have been too willing to view the decades' long impasse between Israeli and Palestinian leaders as a product solely of Israel's intransigence. History notes otherwise.
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Israel has its own reasons to move forward. In the end, negotiations resulted in freeing the only Israeli soldier who has survived captivity in 26 years. As Israeli officials note, the prisoners being released were vetted and had their long sentences reduced — this was not a blanket release of the worst of the worse. Still, Israeli families who lost loved ones in terrorist attacks only to see the convicted be set free had to accept that justice had been done.
For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any expectation from the freed Palestinians to take up arms would be met with force. He put his faith in Egypt's ruling military council to negotiate Shalit's release, an effort to continue the two nations' strong relations as elections in Egypt near and the influence of the anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood is expected to grow.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president and a rival of the militarist Hamas, has been pushing for a U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood, but he also is under pressure from those Palestinians who now wrongly view Hamas as the solution. Nevertheless, Hamas cannot expect to keep using violence as its means of creating a nation without Israel responding with force to protect its borders. Long aligned with Syria's killer regime, Hamas has its own image problems in the region.
Whether this exchange will provide a fresh start to peace talks remains in dispute. Still, as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France noted after Shalit's release, "Even in the most difficult moments, there can be hope."