JERUSALEM — An Israeli Cabinet minister who voted against a landmark deal with Hamas to free a captured Israeli soldier in exchange for Palestinian prisoners denounced on Wednesday the pending swap as a "huge victory for terror."
Most Israelis support the deal, but alongside the spontaneous celebration by overjoyed Israelis eager to see the return of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, there is also a growing sense of concern that the release of convicted Palestinian killers could lead to a new round of violence against the Jewish state.
Uzi Landau, one of three ministers who voted against the deal, said the swap provides "incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions." Hawkish opposition groups warned of a new violent Palestinian uprising led by those released.
The Israeli Cabinet endorsed the deal to exchange Schalit in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in a 26-3 vote early Wednesday. The vote came after Israel and Hamas late on Tuesday announced they had reached an agreement. Both credited Egypt with brokering the deal, which also is an important milestone for Egypt's new military rulers that took power after Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
Schalit was captured more than five years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza and his plight has captivated Israelis.
News of the deal set off wild celebrations at a protest tent erected by Schalit's family outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem. Several hundred people danced in the street and waved flags with Schalit's image.
The soldier's father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure by pushing for his son's freedom. Following the vote, he announced that he was taking down the protest tent and heading home.
But comments from Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal that those released "will return to ... the national struggle" only stoked Israeli fears that they may pay a heavy price for the deal.
Hamas officials said Mashaal was heading to Cairo on Wednesday to finalize the details on the swap.
In Gaza, a parade-like atmosphere has prevailed since Palestinians flooded the streets on Tuesday to celebrate the deal, and more celebrations were planned later Wednesday. The plight of prisoners is equally emotional among Palestinians.
"This is great news, no doubt, and I think that the success of the deal came due to the resilience and unflinching determination of the resistance to see to it that all our demands are met," said Akram Nimr, a 52-year-old Palestinian shop owner who previously served time in an Israeli prison for belonging to the Islamic Jihad militant group.
"Israel wouldn't agree to free that many prisoners unless it was forced to," he added.
Hamas officials said that nearly all of its demands had been met and that Schalit's captors had informed the soldier that he is going to be released shortly.
Yoram Cohen, head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, insisted that the deal only became viable after Hamas backed down from some of its key demands, including the release of top militants. He said the most prominent names, including uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, faction leader Ahmed Saadat and Hamas bombmaker Abdullah Barghouti were not included.
Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. Marwan Barghouti was the top local commander of Fatah, the movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, when he was arrested in 2002 and convicted of a role in deadly attacks against Israelis. He is serving multiple life terms but is widely touted as a future Palestinian president.
The dilemma in Israel over the charged deal was reflected in Wednesday's newspapers. Alongside beaming headlines reading "Gilad is Coming Home" and "Homeward Bound" were columns warning if the dire consequences.
"Yesterday was an evening of capitulation, an evening in which Israel got down on its knees in front of Hamas, an evening in which Israeli staying power failed, and faintheartedness overcame the toughness that is required in our neighborhood," wrote Maariv columnist Ben Kaspit.1 comment on this story
Nahum Barnea, Yediot Ahronot's senior commentator, countered that Israel has no choice but to agree.
"The price is excessive, the risks are great and the precedent is displeasing, but a state that for five years was unable to rescue a soldier from captivity by other means has no choice but to pay the price," he wrote. "The alternative — to let him die in captivity — is unacceptable. It does not meet the minimum conditions of the Israeli tribe."
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.