The first phase of a controversial deal reached between Israel and Hamas began Tuesday, with reports that vehicles carrying Palestinian prisoners were seen leaving Israeli prisons.

Before dawn Tuesday, the first 96 inmates were moved from a prison in the south to another in the West Bank, where they were later to be released, a spokesman for Israel's Prisons Service told The Associated Press.

The first group of Palestinians to be swapped Tuesday includes 450 men and 27 women. The remaining 550 Palestinians are to be freed over a two-month period. Among the Palestinian prisoners to be freed are many involved in plotting suicide bombings inside restaurants and buses as well as shooting attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis and injured many more.

Late Monday, Israel's Supreme Court decided not to intervene in the deal that would exchange more than 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Shalit.

Several families of victims of Palestinian attacks against Israel have asked the top court to block the swap.

Outside of the court on Monday, a few dozen people, including family members of victims, carried out a silent demonstration. One sign said: The Blood of the Murdered Cries Out."

Steve Bloomberg, whose wife was killed when gunmen fired on their car, told the CBC's Derek Stoffel that he is opposed to the release, which would free 477 Palestinians on Tuesday in the first stage of the swap.

Bloomberg, who is now in wheelchair as a result of the attack, said a prisoner swap reduces the deterrent against future attacks and "is endangering all of the country."

Families and victims groups made similar arguments during the court hearings.

The court also heard from Gilad Shalit's father, Noam, who said a terrible price will be paid if there is any delay in the exchange.

Shalit has been held by Hamas militants for more than five years.

The court had been expected to rule against the families. In previous decisions on prisoner exchanges, Israeli courts have rejected the petitions from the families of victims.

A poll released Monday indicates there is strong support for the swap. Carried out by the Dahaf Institute and published in the daily Yediot Ahronot, the survey found that 79 per cent of those polled favoured the swap. Only 14 per cent objected to it. The poll included interviews with 500 respondents, and it carries a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have sent a letter to hundreds of families of victims. The Haaretz news agency reported that in his letter Netanyahu expressed understanding and empathy for the families, but said he is "obligated to return a soldier sent out to protect Israel."

With files from The Associated Press