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Israeli Soldier Released, Exchange Of Prisoners Begins

A "dazed ... thin and pale" Gilad Shalit is home in Israel today after more than five years as a prisoner of Hamas, while Palestinians are joyously celebrating in Ramallah as Israeli authorities begin releasing some of the hundreds of prisoners who are being set free in exchange for the Israeli soldier's release.

As The Associated Press writes, Shalit has been "freed in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners." Today, AP adds, "an ashen-faced Shalit struggled to breathe in an interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his release, saying that he had feared he would remain in captivity for 'many more years.' He said he was 'very excited' to be headed home and that he missed his family and friends."

Shalit, now 25, "was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades," Haaretz reminds us. "He was whisked back into Gaza and held incommunicado until his release."

In the interview with Egyptian TV, Haaretz adds, Shalit said "that he had been treated well by his Hamas captors during the five years he was held hostage."

At Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, it's a day "of happiness for families" and a day of "popularity for Hamas," NPR's Peter Kenyon tells our Newscast desk from the scene.

OnMorning Edition, Peter reported that "it's been a very raucous and joyous day here" as released prisoners arrived. He adds that while many of the Palestinians had been serving life sentences for attacks on Israelis, in Ramallah "they are all freedom fighters." And many of the people there he has spoken to now believe that "kidnapping [Israeli] soldiers does work ... [and] hope that more of this will go on."

Also on Morning Edition, reporter Sheera Frenkel looked at the prisoner swap from the perspective of another Israeli soldier who went through an ordeal similar to Shalit's.

The BBC notes that today's release of about 475 Palestinians is to be followed by the release of another 550 next month.

And BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar writes that "it's rare for both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to be celebrating anything on the same day. But both sides feel like they have got something out of this prisoner swap." In Israel, Shalit's capture and release resonates "with every mother and father in the land." For Palestinians, the prisoners being released are "heroes of the resistance to Israeli occupation."

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<p>Palestinian prisoners cross to the southern Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side of the Rafah border earlier today (Oct. 18, 2011) following their release from Israeli prisons.</p>
Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian prisoners cross to the southern Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side of the Rafah border earlier today (Oct. 18, 2011) following their release from Israeli prisons.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.