Hamas frees Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in prisoner swap


Hamas frees Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in prisoner swap

Israel releases 477 Palestinians in return for tank crewman who was seized in 2006; another 550 will be released at a later date

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – For nine years, Qahera Assadidreamed she would one day be free to embrace her four children again.

From the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, Assadiwas handed three life terms for offences including homicide and possession of a bomb and could well have lived out her days in an Israeli jail.

But a prisoner swap on Tuesday, when hundreds of Palestinianswere exchanged for one Israeli soldier, returned the 34-year-old to her family, and the shock proved too great.

Assadi fainted when greeted by her loved ones after her release in the West Bank. She regained consciousness minutes later as medics splashed her face with water.

“I must be dreaming,” said Assadi, speaking during the chaos of a reception at the Palestinian presidency in Ramallah where thousands gathered to welcome the ex-prisoners as national heroes.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” she repeated, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The sister of one of the most prominent Islamic Jihad leaders in the West Bank, Assadi embraced her two sons and daughters, kissing their hands and faces.

“I am not at all regretful about what I did. I did what I did in defense of my nation and children and have no regrets at all.

“I was kidnapped from my children and spent a decade in prison,” she said.

Assadi was arrested in 2002, at the height of the last Palestinian uprising against Israel. The Jenin refugee camp became notorious in Israel during the Intifada as a hub for gun and suicide attacks but was a symbol of the armed struggle among Palestinians.

She was accused of acting as a logistical officer for the Islamic Jihad group and driving a suicide bomber to a target in Jerusalem where he killed three people in 2002.

Assadi is hailed as the “Mujahed (holy warrior) prisoner” by the Islamic Jihad Web site. The release of militants convicted of murder by Israeli courts has caused pain among the families of those killed in such attacks.

She was one of 27 women prisoners released as part of the deal between the Hamas group which governs Gaza and the Israeli government, which secured freedom for the captured soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the 477 Palestinians it released.

Israel is set to release another 550 Palestinian prisoners in a second stage of the release.

Wearing an Islamic Jihad headband, Assadi said her only regret was having left friends behind in prison.

Israel is still holding nine women among the roughly 5,000 Palestinians who remain in its jails, according to Palestinian officials.

“I left the dearest of friends in prison,” she said, identifying one as Lena al-Jarbouni, an Arab citizen of Israel.

“Her message to the Palestinian people is: ‘Why did you forget me?'” Assadi said.

Assadi’s husband, Nasser Assadi, who has raised their four children for the past nine years, was delighted at her release.

“I am proud of my wife. Not just me, but my children too.”

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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