JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Hamas began an elaborate prisoner exchange Tuesday in which hundreds of Palestinian inmates were to be traded for one Israeli soldier held by militants in the Gaza Strip for more than five years.
Before dawn, convoys of white vans and trucks transported hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to the locations in the West Bank and on the Israel-Egypt border where they were to be freed. In Gaza, the Red Cross confirmed that the prisoners slated for release had arrived at the nearby border crossing.
The exchange, negotiated through mediators because Israel and Hamas will not talk directly to each other, is going ahead despite criticism and court appeals in Israel against the release of 1,027 Palestinians, many of whom were involved in deadly attacks.
The exchange involves a delicate series of staged releases, each one triggering the next. The Red Cross and Egyptian officials are involved in facilitating the movement of prisoners.
In Gaza, Hamas militants deployed in force along the road leading into Egypt where the captive soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, was to travel on his way back to Israel. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of returning Palestinians were slated to enter Gaza on the same road.
Muhammad Barim, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, a Hamas-linked group involved in Schalit's capture, said the soldier had not yet been moved from the unknown location where he has been held since he was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
When Tuesday's exchange is complete, 477 Palestinians held in Israeli jails will have been released, several of them after decades behind bars. The other 550 are set to be released in two months.
Schalit will be brought to an Israeli military base along the Egypt border, where he will be issued a new military uniform and given another medical examination, according to the Israeli military. Although he appeared healthy the last time he was seen — in a brief and scripted 2009 video released by Hamas — he was denied all visits, including by the Red Cross, and the state of his mental and physical health is unclear.
Schalit will then be flown by helicopter to an air force base in central Israel, where he will meet his parents, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the defense minister and military chief of staff.
An intense media campaign to free Schalit made him a national symbol in Israel, and all local radio and TV stations held special live broadcasts Tuesday, following every development as the exchange progressed.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.