Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be freed from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip sometime next week in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
The swap is expected to take place on Egyptian territory at locations somewhere in the Sinai Desert, as yet undisclosed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has facilitated previous swaps, has offered its services as a neutral intermediary and is discussing this with Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, a spokesman in Geneva said.
The timing and choreography of the exchange have not been made public. But the approximate mechanics can be sketched from details gleaned from Palestinian and Israeli sources.
The handover will begin with carefully timed, simultaneous moves somewhere in Egypt. But Shalit and the men and women for whom he is being traded are not likely to even come close to seeing each other.
The deal, over three years in the making and a casualty of at least two breakdowns, was finally brokered last week with Egyptian mediation between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
It was signed and announced by both on Tuesday evening.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday telephoned Egypt’s military council chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to thank him on behalf of all Israelis for Cairo’s “successful intensive efforts.”
Israeli law, which stipulates a 48-hour period for any citizen to formally oppose the release of any prisoner, plus this week’s Jewish religious holiday, mean it is likely to be Tuesday at the earliest before the operation can take place.
Shalit is 25 and has been the focus of an emotional campaign since soon after his capture in June 2006. He was last seen, looking pale and thin, in a 2009 video shot by his captors, and he is sure to get a hero’s welcome in Israel.
The Palestinian side is also preparing to celebrate the release of 450 men and 27 women, including prison veterans held in Israeli jails for 30 years.
Some will be greeted at home. Others will be exiled to third countries, as yet unnamed, without stopping on Palestinian soil.
One member of a Gaza militant faction who is involved in arrangements to receive prisoners set to return to the enclave forecast the handover for Tuesday “if all goes smoothly.”
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip from 1967 to 2005, when it withdrew settlers and troops. Control of the enclave was seized in 2007 by Hamas militants who drove out the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah, with a pledge never to recognize Israel and to keep fighting “the Zionist entity.”
Somewhere in Gaza is the secret cell where Shalit, abducted in a raid by Hamas and allied gunmen who tunneled under the front line, has been held for years, without visitors, to extract the maximum concessions from Israel in a prisoner swap.
It is expected that Shalit will be taken across Gaza’s southwestern border into Egyptian territory while groups of Palestinian prisoners are transferred from Israeli jails to the Egyptian border near Eilat, on the edge of the Sinai Desert.
Former enemies Egypt and Israel have been at peace since 1979, so there is no political obstacle blocking cooperation between their security forces to facilitate the swap.
Shalit is likely to be flown to Israel by military aircraft. The Palestinians will have further to travel, possibly by bus and plane through Egypt and on to a variety of destinations.
Of the 450 Palestinian men and 27 women to be freed in this first phase of the exchange, out of a total of 1,000 men set for release in the coming months, 111 will go home to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and 130 will go home to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.
Six Arab-Israeli prisoners will be allowed to return to their homes in Israel. The rest—203 men and two of the 27 women prisoners—will be exiled to unnamed third countries, probably to join the Palestinian diaspora.
Israel is expected to publish the list of Palestinian names agreed with Hamas on Sunday morning. It will not include a few of the most prominent activists jailed for violent attacks on Israelis, but 310 men serving life terms will be freed, including one man aged 79.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alistair Lyon