Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement have begun a multi-stage process to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Convoys carrying the Palestinian prisoners being released Tuesday moved from Israeli jails to border crossings before dawn. The exchange deal calls for 477 Palestinian inmates to be freed Tuesday, with another 550 to be released over a two-month period in return for Shalit.
The captured Israeli soldier will be released to Egyptian custody Tuesday and then handed over to Israel at the same time as the Jewish state begins to free the Palestinians at various locations.
After his return, Shalit will be flown to an air base where he is to be greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, other leaders and close family. Later, he will be taken to his home in northern Israel.
About 100 of the Palestinians will be sent to the West Bank and roughly 40 are to be deported to Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and Syria. The rest will be freed in Gaza, where Hamas has been readying a heroes’ welcome.
Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the prisoner exchange deal Monday, rejecting four petitions submitted by relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks.
Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants in a 2006 cross-border raid from Gaza into southern Israel.
Some of the prisoners to be released were involved in planning and carrying out terrorist attacks against Israelis, including more than 280 Palestinians serving life sentences. More than 100 are considered hardcore militants.
In Washington Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said international mediators will meet separately with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Jerusalem on October 26, in an effort to re-launch peace talks.
The Middle East Quartet of mediators includes the U.S., European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The talks will just miss the 30-day deadline to restart preliminary talks that the Quartet set on September 23.
Quartet envoy Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, will attend the meetings.