Gilad Shalit back in Israel
05:01 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Israel is freeing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit

Hamas later handed Shalit to Egyptian forces, he later crossed into Israel

Deal enjoys support in Israel, but there is debate about number of Palestinians being freed

Palestinians welcome prospect of so many prisoners being released

CNN  — 

Israel is freeing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences for attacks on Israelis, in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured by Hamas in 2006. How and why has the controversial deal come about?

Why is Shalit considered important enough by the Israelis to be exchanged for so many Palestinian prisoners?

Militants captured the young sergeant in June 2006 after tunneling into the Jewish state and attacking an Israeli army outpost. Israel immediately launched a military incursion into Gaza to rescue Shalit, then 19, but failed to free him.

As the Israeli attacks continued, the Palestinians death toll steadily grew – hundreds killed, many militants, but also, according to Palestinian sources, innocent men women and children.

Shalit’s captors, affiliated with the Islamic Hamas government, demanded a prisoner swap, but the Israeli government said no – at least in public.

Until Tuesday, when Shalit was freed and returned to Israel, he was held incommunicado by Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Efforts to free him became a rallying cry for thousands of Israelis who urged the government to secure his release. Shalit’s supporters feared that if a deal was not reached, his fate could have become similar to that of Israeli Air Force Navigator Ron Arad, who crashed his warplane in Lebanon 25 years ago. He was captured by a local Shiite Amal militia and later handed over to Hezbollah, Shiite militants strongly influenced by Iran and now in de facto control of Lebanon.