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Israel releases 550 Palestinians, completing swap for soldier

JERUSALEM — Israel completed a prisoner exchange with the militant Hamas movement Sunday night, freeing another 550 Palestinian prisoners in the second stage of a deal that brought home Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza for more than five years.

Flashing V-signs and raising their arms in celebration, the freed prisoners were given heroes' welcomes in separate ceremonies in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, where the rival Fatah movement is dominant.

Sgt. 1st Class Shalit, who was captured in June 2006 in a cross-border raid by militants from Hamas and two allied groups, returned home in October in the first phase of the lopsided exchange, in which Israel freed a total of 1,027 prisoners.

The hundreds of Palestinians freed in October included many Hamas members, including those serving life sentences for involvement in suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis. But most of those released Sunday were serving light sentences or nearing the end of their terms, and none were from Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

More than 500 were released to the West Bank and only 41 to the Gaza Strip, in an apparent gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, who were largely sidelined in the first phase of the prisoner swap. Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners who were freed Sunday.

Two prisoners were released to East Jerusalem, and two were sent to Jordan.

In a short ceremony in Gaza, Ahmad Bahar, a senior Hamas leader, paid tribute to the "resistance" and to the armed wing of Hamas, which he said had "forced the Zionist occupation to submit to its conditions."

Also Sunday, the Israeli government moved ahead with a plan to accelerate building in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, inviting bids to construct more than 1,000 homes there.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the stepped-up construction last month after the Palestinians were accepted as a member state in UNESCO.

Israel releases 550 Palestinians, completing swap for soldier 12/18/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 18, 2011 11:22pm]
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