Monday, October 17, 2011

Israel moves hundreds of prisoners near swap site

A Palestinian prisoner gestures from the window of a bus as it leaves Nafha
Prison in the southern town of Mitzpe Ramon on Oct. 16, 2011, before a
prisoner swap that is expected to take place on Tuesday.
(REUTERS/Ilan Assayag)


JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Israel bused some 430 Palestinian prisoners under heavy guard to a holding facility in the Negev desert on Sunday in preparation for them to be exchanged on Tuesday for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, officials said.

The prisoner swap, to take place in the nearby Egyptian desert region of Sinai, is the first stage of the Egyptian- and German-brokered deal which will see over 1,000 Palestinians released from Israeli jail .

Forty-seven further Palestinians slated for release on Tuesday were moved to a holding cell in central Israel on Sunday.

While some of the 477 released this week will go home to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, almost half will be exiled, without stopping on Palestinian soil.

Some 200 detainees are slated for exile, 40 detainees to third countries and 163 to Gaza. Turkish media said on Friday that Turkey would accept all those exiled abroad.

On Sunday Hamas and Israel posted lists of the names of prisoners due to go free this week, opening the way for anyone opposed to their release to file a legal appeal within 48 hours. Israeli media reported on Sunday that a number of petitions had been filed, but the court has never stayed a government decision to release prisoners in the past.

"Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, or someone in Gaza goes nuts, it appears the deal will go through in two days," Yaakov Amidror, national security adviser for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Army Radio.

'No crisis'

On Sunday, Gaza was preparing a heroes' welcome for 295 of the prisoners due to be sent to the territory. Workmen hammered together an open-air stage and streets were decorated with Hamas and Palestinian flags.

The deal has been widely celebrated by Palestinians, despite heartache over prisoners remaining in jail and exiled abroad.

Popular jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti said prisoners were not part of the negotiating process and first learned of the deal through the media, his lawyer told Ma'an on Sunday.

Barghouti and PFLP leader Ahmad Saadat are among several prominent figures who were left off the deal.

Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad told Ma'an on Sunday that there was no crisis in implementing the prisoners exchange. He denied a Voice of Palestine interview, which quoted him saying the number of exiles and female detainees to be released were sticking points to be resolved with Israel by the end of the week.

The remaining 550 prisoners are set to be released in two months, an arrangement Hamad said Egypt has guaranteed to ensure the second phase runs smoothly.

According to latest figures provided by the Palestinian Authority, there are around 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. The majority remaining in jail have vowed to continue a hunger strike that entered its 20th day on Sunday, in protest of worsening conditions in Israeli prisons.

Mixed emotions in Israel

An opinion poll by Israel's Channel 10 TV showed the exchange was backed by two-thirds of Israelis. Shalit, now 25, was last seen, looking pale and thin, in a 2009 video shot by his captors.

The repatriation of captured soldiers, alive or dead, has long been an emotionally charged issue for Israelis, many of whom have served in the military. But they also feel a sting over the release of Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis.

Israel has said that around 300 of the 1,027 being freed in both stages of the deal were involved in violent crime.

One Israeli group opposed to the deal, the Almagor Terror Victims' Association, said the exchange would lead to more violence and abduction attempts.

"The judges should explain to terror victims how they allow Israelis to be murdered and (for the killers) to be released. They should look them in the eyes and explain," Meir Indor, head of Almagor, told Israeli television.

Gila Edri-Dekel, whose brother Sharon was abducted and killed by Palestinian militants in 1996, said her family has been in a state of angst since hearing that his killers were to be released in the swap.

"To see the number of prisoners released, to see his killers released, it is another punishment for my mother," Edri-Dekel told Army Radio.

Israel's Supreme Court will hear the group's petitions against the swap on Monday. Hours beforehand, the court took the rare step of granting Noam Shalit's request to argue himself in its chambers in favor of the deal for his son.

In a televised appeal, the soldier's mother Aviva Shalit, said "we understand their heavy hearts" of Israeli attack victims, but cautioned any delay in implementing the sensitive deal "is liable to put Gilad at risk."

Shalit, a tank crewman captured in 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from fenced-off Gaza and spirited him into the enclave, was expected to be handed over in Egypt's adjacent Sinai desert and flown to Israel.

Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the small coastal territory which is home to around 1.5 million Palestinians after Shalit was seized.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report