- Associated Press - Sunday, December 18, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel was wrapping up preparations to release 550 Palestinian prisoners late Sunday in the second and final phase of a swap with Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange a total of 1,027 prisoners for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006. Sgt. Schalit returned home in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners. Sunday’s release will complete the swap.

The release, expected to take place late Sunday, was not infused with the same drama as the first phase since the most significant players in the trade already have been released.

The Oct. 18 return of Sgt. Schalit, who appeared pale and thin but otherwise healthy, was the first public sighting of him since his capture, and the plight of the young man captured Israel’s attention for years.

The prisoners freed in the first round included dozens of militants serving life sentences for involvement in deadly attacks. Their releases set off ecstatic celebration in the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas‘ Gaza stronghold.

Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners to be freed Sunday. Prison officials said most were serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza.

More than 500 were being sent to the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas‘ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them were believed to be linked to Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement. Israel is interested in bolstering Mr. Abbas at a time when Islamic groups such as Hamas are gaining in power throughout the Middle East. Hamas enjoyed a huge boost of popularity following the October release.

The Palestinians have been divided between two rival governments since Hamas expelled Mr. Abbas’ forces and seized control of Gaza in 2007. Mr. Abbas, who favors a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, has governed only in the West Bank since then.

“This phase of the swap is shallow, because most of those coming out had served short sentences,” said Issa Karake, the prisoners affairs minister in the West Bank government. “It did not live up to the expectations of the Palestinians.”

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement welcomed the release of all prisoners, regardless of their political affiliation. “We are proud of this great achievement,” he said.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen for three years, in part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future state.

On Sunday, Israel’s Housing Ministry published advertisements seeking contractors to build some 1,000 apartments in both areas.

The apartments were approved long ago. Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered construction to be sped up after the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO granted the Palestinians membership. Israel opposes Palestinian efforts to join the United Nations in the absence of a negotiated peace deal.

Also Sunday, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression condemned the militant Islamic group Hamas for cracking down on journalists in Gaza.

The official, Frank La Rue, said that Hamas security forces arbitrarily arrest and hit journalists and beat Palestinian demonstrators.

Mr. La Rue also spoke out over allegations that Israeli soldiers fire tear gas directly at Palestinian protesters in the West Bank, which is against Israeli military regulations and can be lethal.

Daniella Cheslow contributed to this report.



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