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Family: Israeli soldier likely released Tuesday

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JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants will likely return home Tuesday, said a spokeswoman for his family on Friday, ending a five-year ordeal for his family and the country.

Sgt. Gilad Schalit will be freed by the militant Islamic Hamas in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in a deal first announced last week by the two sides.

The Tuesday date from the family spokeswoman was the highest level indication so far of the timing for the first phase of the exchange.

Spokeswoman Tami Shienkman said that the Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, told the Schalit family the news late on Thursday evening in their home in northern Israel.

"If everything goes smoothly, on Tuesday he will be home," she the told The Associated Press.

In Gaza, Hamas officials also said the exchange would take place Tuesday.

In the first phase, Schalit is set to be swapped for some 450 Palestinian prisoners. About 550 prisoners would be released two months later, according to the deal.

The military chief of staff warned that unexpected events could delay the deal, Shienkman said.

Schalit's release would end an ordeal for his family and close a painful chapter for Israel, which was mesmerized by his plight since he was seized in a cross-border raid and dragged into Gaza in 2006 by Hamas-backed militants. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid.

Most 18-year-old Israelis are conscripted into the army, and many do many years of annual reserve duty afterward. They see their government as responsible for ensuring that captured soldiers are freed. Such pressure has led Israel to make several lopsided prisoner exchanges over the years.

Palestinians, meanwhile, were preparing for the return of their imprisoned relatives.

"If God is willing, we have an appointment with a great Palestinian national wedding, a historical moment, this coming Tuesday," said Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, referring to huge celebrations expected when the prisoners are released.

"We welcome our heroes that are returning from the occupation's jails," he said.

Nearby, workers were erecting a large stage where prisoners would be honored after their release.

Palestinians view the case of their prisoners in Israeli jails with deep sensitivity. Most have relatives who have served time, with convictions ranging from masterminding militant attacks to throwing rocks. Palestinians see them as political prisoners and demand their freedom.

In Israel, concern over the consequences of the deal clouded joy over the prospect of freedom for the soldier.

Early Friday, a man whose parents and three of his siblings were killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing vandalized an Israeli memorial to protest the deal.

The suspect was identified in Israeli media as Shvuel Schijveschuurder, 27. He splashed paint and scrawled graffiti on the memorial of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Israeli who opposed his plan to trade West Bank and Gaza land for peace with the Palestinians.

Schijveschuurder's parents and three siblings were among 15 people killed in a 2001 suicide bombing at a restaurant in Jerusalem.

One of the 1,027 Palestinians set to be released was involved in that bombing.

In August, Schijveschuurder said he feared the release of prisoners would lead to more violence.

"We must not return a single Palestinian prisoner sentenced to life in prison in Israel," he told YNet News then.

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Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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