Barring any unforeseen delays, defense officials expect Gilad Shalit to be back in Israel on Tuesday. According to plans taking shape, the captive Israeli soldier will be transferred from Gaza to Sinai via Rafah. Simultaneously, 27 female Arab prisoners will be released by Israel. The prisoner exchange, which involves the release of a total of 1,027 prisoners, was worked out in Cairo with the involvement of Egyptian and German mediators and the Israeli cabinet approved the deal late Tuesday night. Shalit was captured near the Gaza border in 2006 and has been held in the Gaza Strip ever since.
Files on the Arab prisoners slated for release in exchange for Shalit were provided yesterday to President Shimon Peres, who is to pardon them. Those objecting to the prisoner exchange have 48 hours to petition the High Court of Justice. Shalit will be transferred to Israel, apparently within a short time after his arrival in Sinai, as the 450 Arab prisoners in the first phase of the prisoner exchange are released. An additional 550 prisoners chosen by Israel will be released in about two months.
It has not been decided whether Shalit will return to Israel by land or air and the prospect of his transfer via Cairo has apparently not been totally ruled out. The initial Israeli team that will meet Shalit is to include a physician, a psychologist, a photographer and an identification specialist.
A short welcome reception for Shalit is anticipated, to be attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Gilad Shalit is expected to be reunited with his family at the Tel Nof airbase. Israel's special envoy on the Shalit case, David Meidan, left yesterday evening for Cairo, for meetings with Egyptian officials about the final details involved in the prisoner swap.
Swap dubbed 'Operation Four Species'
Israeli officials are mindful of two scenarios that could complicate carrying out the exchange on time. One would be from provocations by extremist Palestinian factions in Gaza or from relatives of Arab prisoners who were not included in the deal. On the other hand, officials haven't ruled out the prospect of possible attempts by right-wing Jewish activists in Israel to impede the transport of the Arab prisoners by bus or to carry out so-called "price tag" revenge attacks in an effort to scuttle the deal. Another possible complication involves the fact that Hamas has learned of an additional eight female prisoners held in Israel who are not included in the deal (see separate story on page 2 ).
The IDF and the Israeli prison service will carry out the release of 477 Arab prisoners. Red Cross officials will also be present at the Ketziot prison, where they will be sent. It is not yet clear if those prisoners that are being sent to the Gaza Strip will be transferred via an Israeli border crossing or through the Sinai. The prisoners being sent to the West Bank will be handled by the Nachshon unit of the prison service and by military police. They will be sent to a West Bank roadblock from where they will be sent to their homes.
The preparations for the transfer of the Arab prisoners has been dubbed Operation Four Species. Prison service officials met on Friday to finalize the plans. In addition to senior prison officials, the meeting was attended by representatives of the security establishment as well as others involved in the plans. The plan has been approved and implementation is to begin this morning.
The plan calls for the prisoners who are being released to be formally notified today. Prior to their transfer, they will undergo a medical examination and will also be positively identified so that no mistakes are made as to which individuals are freed. The women prisoners, most of whom are at the Damun prison near Haifa, will undergo a similar process, but will be transferred to the Sharon prison until their release. The prison service expects to complete the entire operation by Tuesday morning.
The prison service faced a dilemma as to how the Israeli Arab prisoners would be released. Under normal circumstances, when an Israeli citizen completes a prison term, he simply walks out the prison gates and goes home on his own. Out of concern that demonstrators may be present outside the prisons who might seek to prevent them from leaving, other arrangements are being considered, including sending them to Sharon prison and from there to a location in East Jerusalem.
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