Israeli Court Hears Objections to Swap

Israel’s supreme court is hearing objections to the agreement between Israel and the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, under which a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in two phases for one Israeli soldier – 25-year-old Gilad Shalit.

But under the Israeli constitution, citizens unhappy with the agreement can appeal against it, and a number of them filed their objections on Monday.

Among those opposing the deal are several Israeli families who lost people to Palestinian attacks, with the High Court hearing four petitions in a procedure which must first be exhausted before the exchange operation can go ahead.

The court has never in its history overturned a government decision to free prisoners involved in Palestinian attacks. A justice ministry spokeswoman said that it was unlikely that the court would accept any further petitions after Monday’s hearing, since it would have effectively dealt with the issue.

Hamas leaders are confident that the swap would be carried out as planned and that Israeli courts would not overturn the Israeli government’s decision, an official from the group told Al Jazeera on Monday.

Noam Shalit, father of Gilad Shalit, was expected to address the court as a respondent to the appeals filed by bereaved families and organisations representing victims of violent attacks.

The swap deal has the support of eight out of 10 Israelis, with a poll in the Yediot Aharonot daily showing 79 per cent were in favour and 14 per cent against.

Areas Cordoned off

Already the Israeli military has cordoned off areas where the swap is expected to take place.

Tuesday’s operation will involve Israel freeing 477 security prisoners, including hundreds who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis.

In a statement on Monday, the military said that the area around the Ketziot prison, where most of the prisoners are awaiting the transfer, and the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Egypt, have been declared "closed military zones".

Other sensitive border crossings have also been closed.

The warrant bars entry into the zones to anyone, with the exception of local residents, soldiers, policemen and others with special authorisation. Roadblocks have been set up to enforce it.

Israelis are waiting to see the first images of Shalit, who has been held incommunicado since his capture by three Gaza-based groups on June 25, 2006.

His family has been readjusting and preparing for the long-awaited return of their son to their home in northern Israel, after finally moving out of the Jerusalem protest tent they called home for nearly 16 months.

The vast majority of the prisoners to be freed are members of Hamas, the Palestinian group which governs the Gaza Strip.

But Hamas included a few dozen fighters of its rival, Fatah, in its list of prisoners it demanded that Israel free in exchange for Shalit

The Hamas official who spoke to Al Jazeera on Monday declared that the swap agreement was a "victory" for all Palestinians, regardless of party affiliation; and that the group negotiated for the release of prisoners from all parties.

Preparations in Gaza

Hamas has erected a giant podium in Gaza City’s Al-Katiba Park, where it plans to transport the prisoners after they cross into the Palestinian enclave from Egypt.

Ismail Haniya, the prime minister, and members of the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, leaders of other factions, relatives and tens of thousands of onlookers were expected to welcome the prisoners.

Not everyone is celebrating. More than 4,000 Palestinian "security prisoners" will remain in Israeli jails.
A short walk from the park, relatives have set a up a tent in solidarity with prisoners who began a hunger strike on September 27, because Israel dropped some of their privileges, such as the opportunity to study for an academic degree.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has said that the prisoner swap marks a positive step towards peace.

"The recent announcement of the exchange of prisoners is welcome, it is a positive movement for peace," he said.

(Al Jazeera and Agencies)

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