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October 14, 2011

Israel, Hamas Prepare For Prisoner Swap on Tuesday

Israeli and Palestinian officials say a major prisoner swap will take place on Tuesday.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip met with Egyptian intelligence officials on Saturday to discuss the handover of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to Israel. Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid by Hamas gunmen more than five years ago and has been held in Gaza ever since.

If all goes according to plan, Shalit will be released to Egyptian custody on Tuesday and then handed over to Israel. In exchange, Israel will free 477 Palestinian prisoners, including top militants involved in deadly bombings. An additional 550 Palestinian prisoners will be released in two months time.

In Gaza, Palestinians are gearing up for a big celebration to welcome the prisoners home. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh says it is a great victory.

Haniyeh said it is “a historic moment,” and "a great Palestinian national wedding will take place on Tuesday.

In Israel, the mood is more subdued. While Israelis are delighted to see the captive soldier return, Israel paid a heavy price: 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for just one soldier. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says there are security risks, but Israel has a national duty to bring its soldiers home.

"Every young Israeli man and woman does their compulsory military service. We have an obligation to them, we have an obligation to their families that we will do everything: If you are behind enemy lines, if you are taken hostage, we will act to bring you out," he said.

Israel has carried out lopsided prisoner swaps in the past, but critics, like Rabbi Stuart Weiss, say the policy is a grave mistake.

"The fact that someone can commit mass murder and be let out of jail, it's a black day in Israeli history. We cannot do something which is going to result in more massive bombings and murders," said Weiss.

Opponents also warn that the swap will encourage more kidnappings of Israeli soldiers. Indeed, Hamas says the deal is just the first step toward the release of all of the remaining 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

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