Israel, Palestine ready for inmate swap
Jerusalem - Israel was on Monday preparing to release 477 Palestinian security prisoners in order to secure the freedom of captive soldier Gilad Shalit following a landmark deal with Hamas.
The agreement will see Israel free a total of 1 027 Palestinians in return for Shalit's freedom in what will be the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for one person.
If all goes to plan, it will be the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier has been returned to the Jewish state alive.
In Israel, the nation was waiting with bated breath to see the first images of the now 25-year-old soldier, who has been held incommunicado for over five years since his capture by three Gaza-based militant groups on June 25 2006.
His family have been readjusting and preparing for the long-awaited return of their son to their home in northern Israel, after finally moving out of the Jerusalem protest tent they called home for nearly 16 months.
A step towards peace
Throughout the Palestinian territories, similar preparations were taking place.
Tuesday's operation will see Israel freeing 477 security prisoners, including hundreds who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said that the deal, which the UN fully supports, marked a positive step towards peace. "The recent announcement of the exchange of prisoners is welcome, it is a positive movement for peace," he said in Bern.
The landmark swap deal has the support of eight out of 10 Israelis, with a poll in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily showing 79% were in favour and 14% against.
Among those opposing the deal are several Israeli families who lost people to Palestinian attacks, with the high court hearing four petitions in a procedure which must first be exhausted before the exchange operation can go ahead.
The court has never in its history overturned a government decision to free prisoners involved in militant attacks, and a justice ministry spokesperson said it was unlikely the court would accept any further petitions after Monday's hearing, since it would have effectively dealt with the issue.
Bombers to be freed
Noam Shalit, the father of the captive soldier, was expected to address the court as a respondent to the appeals filed by bereaved families and organisations representing terror victims.
Among the prisoners to be released are Walid Anjas, who received 36 life sentences over a 2002 attack on a Jerusalem bar that killed 11 Israelis, and Nasr Yateyma, who was convicted of planning the 2002 Passover bombing which killed 29.
Others were involved in kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers.
Israeli officials have acknowledged the deal will be painful for the bereaved relatives, but said the agreement was the best accord that could be reached.
Under the deal, 137 Palestinians from Gaza, 96 from the West Bank, and 14 from east Jerusalem will be allowed to return to their homes, although some of them will be under security restrictions.
Another 163 detainees - 145 from the West Bank and 18 from east Jerusalem - will be exiled to Gaza, although 18 of them will be able to return home after a period of three years.
Forty prisoners, including 26 from the West Bank, 13 from east Jerusalem and one from Gaza, will be banished abroad to countries which so far include Turkey, Syria and Qatar, Hamas officials said.
Six Arab Israelis and 26 women will also be sent home, with a 27th female prisoner to be exiled to Gaza.
A second group of 550 prisoners is to be released in the coming two months although the names have yet to be decided.
Gaza's Hamas rulers declared on Tuesday to be a national holiday, and celebrations were also being planned in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where residents hung up huge green Hamas flags alongside banners bearing the prisoners' pictures.
Israeli officials came to the scene and removed the flags, but locals told an AFP correspondent they would replace them.
In a separate development, Israeli sources told public radio that a second prisoner swap agreement was imminent which would see the release of US-Israeli national Ilan Grapel in exchange for 81 Egyptians being held in Israel.
Grapel has been in Egyptian custody since June 12 on suspicion of being an agent with Israel's Mossad spy agency.