Many Freed Palestinian Prisoners May Be Deported

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A Hamas official said Thursday that close to 200 of the 450 Palestinians to be freed in the first phase of a swap for a captured Israeli soldier will not be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank, Gaza or east Jerusalem, suggesting a substantial number may face deportation.

The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figures, told reporters that 272 of the 450 prisoners to be released in the initial stage of the swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit can go home. That means the remaining 178 are likely to be deported to third countries or -- if they are from the West Bank or east Jerusalem -- to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The Hamas official did not name any countries that might be a destination for those expelled.

The prisoner swap was announced Tuesday, ending a five year saga of sputtering negotiations to release Schalit, who was seized by Hamas-backed Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006. Israel will release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. About 550 are expected to be freed in a second phase in about two months.

The deportations would be a blow to the prisoners' families, many of whom have waited decades to see their loved ones.

Hamas may come under fire from Palestinian critics for agreeing to so many deportations after it repeatedly said it would fight to allow prisoners to return home. Hamas officials note that Israel wanted far more prisoners deported, and that the release of so many Palestinians itself is a victory.

Israel pressed for the deportation of Palestinian prisoners who they worried would pose a security risk to the Jewish state if they were released back into their own communities. Most of those Israel objects to are blamed for masterminding militant attacks, or causing Israeli deaths.

The first phase of the deal will likely be concluded next Tuesday or Wednesday, said another Hamas official, Saleh Aruri.

Other parties involved in the deal -- Egyptian mediators and Israeli officials have not confirmed a day. Aruri was one of the four Hamas officials involved in negotiations for the swap.

Aruri said Israeli prison authorities would hand over Palestinian prisoners to the International Committee of the Red Cross, while they would transfer Schalit to Egyptian authorities.

"Israel will hand over our beloved brothers and sisters," said Aruri, speaking to a television station loyal to the militant group.

On Thursday, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal was in Cairo meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Mourad Mowafi to discuss the logistics of the release. Egypt is credited with playing a main role in brokering the swap deal.

The Hamas official who offered a breakdown of the first phase of prisoners said they would include seven who have served around three decades in Israeli jails. It was not immediately clear what their sentences were, or if they would be among the deportees.

While the crimes the men were sentenced for were violent -- and deadly -- the case of prisoners in Israeli jails is deeply sensitive to Palestinians. Most Palestinians have either served time in an Israeli jail, or know somebody who has.

Schalit's plight mesmerized Israel, a country where most adults are expected to undertake military conscription and see their government as responsible for ensuring their safety while serving their country.