Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is expected to return to Israel via Egypt by next Wednesday, Palestinian sources and Israeli media said on Thursday, as a senior Palestinian official denied that Palestinian and Israeli delegates would soon meet in Jordan to discuss restarting peace talks.
In Gaza, a spokesman for one of the groups that captured Shalit said he would be delivered to Egypt on Tuesday, at the same time as a first group of 450 Palestinians is freed by Israel, under the terms of a prisoner exchange deal, AFP reported.
“Next Tuesday, Shalit will be officially delivered to the Egyptian side. He’ll be transferred to Egypt secretly at the same time as the 450 Palestinian prisoners are released,” said Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees.
Earlier, a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, also said the first group of 450 Palestinian prisoners would be released next Tuesday.
He said he expected Shalit would arrive in Israel on Wednesday after being transferred from Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah crossing and then flown home. It was not clear if Shalit would be flown home from Cairo or elsewhere in Egypt.
Israeli media too reported that Shalit was expected home on either Tuesday or Wednesday next week.
And the reports were backed by an announcement from the Israeli justice department, which said a list of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Shalit would be published on Sunday, and that the Israeli public would have 48 hours to raise any legal challenges.
Officials from Israel and the Hamas movement have said they expect the first stage of the exchange to begin “within days.”
Under the Egypt-mediated deal, a group of at least 450 Palestinian prisoners will be released along with Shalit in the first phase of the deal, followed by the release of another 550 Palestinians within two months.
It was still unclear when an additional group of 27 Palestinian female prisoners to be freed under the deal would be released.
Israeli news site Ynet reported that Shalit would be transferred from Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing in the middle of next week and then flown to Israel.
The news site said Shalit’s parents would meet him at a military base, where he was likely to also be greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He is expected to receive immediate medical treatment and will be accompanied by military psychologists throughout, the website reported.
Shalit has been held since his June 25, 2006 capture in a cross-border raid by militants from three Gaza groups -- Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam.
Negotiations to secure his release in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons have stalled multiple times over the names of those to be freed and where they would go.
The deal announced Tuesday night will see some detainees from the West Bank exiled to Gaza or overseas.
It excludes some high-profile Palestinian prisoners, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghuti and Ahmed Saadat, the secretary general of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Palestinian Authority disappointed
In an interview with France 24 television on Thursday, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki said that the Palestinian Authority was disappointed Hamas had agreed to allow Israel to exile some of the prisoners that will be released in exchange for Shalit.
He called into question the timing of the swap, suggesting Hamas and Israel might have collaborated to embarrass the Palestinian Authority.
“We’re happy to see 1,027 are released,” said Malki.
“We were very much disappointed that part of them will be transferred to Gaza and will not stay in their homes with their families in the West Bank, and other parties will also be deported outside,” he added.
“We are very much disappointed in this part of the deal because we don’t want to see any Palestinian being deported from his own territory by a decision taken by his own people,” Malki said.
A senior Palestinian official, meanwhile, denied on Thursday that Palestinian and Israeli delegates would soon meet in Jordan to discuss restarting peace talks, reiterating demands that Israel stop building settlements before negotiations can resume, according to Reuters.
Washington and its allies are scrambling to resurrect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to defuse a diplomatic crisis after President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a request last month for Palestine to be recognized as a U.N. member state.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on Tuesday Washington was hopeful the Israelis and Palestinians would hold a preliminary meeting in Jordan on Oct. 23.
No meeting planned with the Israelis
But Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator and close advisor to Abbas, told Voice of Palestine radio that no such meeting was planned.
“It was said that there are meetings and calls for meetings in Jordan between an Israeli and a Palestinian delegation with the Quartet. This talk is not true. We did not receive anything from them,” he said.
The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators comprises the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The Quartet issued a statement on Sept. 23 calling on the sides to hold a preliminary meeting within a month that would lead to full peace talks.
Erekat said: “My view is that anyone who tries to get around the point that Israel must halt settlement and accept the ‘67 borders is only wasting their time,” he said.
The Palestinians aim to found their state alongside Israel on territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war -- the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to halt the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He says the Palestinians should have come to the table when he partially froze West Bank building for 10 months between 2009 and 2010, and any talks should come with no preconditions.
Netanyahu told the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Monday he was willing to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to restart peace talks.
Ashton on Sunday announced plans to invite Israeli and Palestinian representatives to meet to discuss resuming negotiations. The last round of talks broke down a year ago over the settlement issue.
Abbas, currently in Paris, is due to meet the U.S. Middle East envoy David Hale later on Thursday, Erekat said.
“There will be no negotiations for the sake of negotiations,” he said.
The latest international effort to revive the peace talks was triggered by the Palestinians’ bid to secure full membership in the United Nations.
The United States and Israel oppose the move, describing it as a unilateral attempt by the Palestinians to bypass the peace process. Washington says Palestinian statehood should be a result of negotiations.
The Palestinians say the peace process that got underway 20 years ago has brought them no closer to independence and instead given Israel time to expand Jewish settlements and undermine the prospects of a viable Palestinian state.