JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – An Israeli soldier held captive by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas for the past three years appears healthy and coherent in a two-minute video received by Israel on Friday, Israeli officials said.
In the classic “proof of life” gesture, Gilad Shalit, abducted in 2006, was shown holding an Arabic-language newspaper dated Sept. 14, said one official who saw the video. He read from a text, telling of his condition and asking for his release. He was shaved and his hair was short. He was wearing glasses and dressed in what appeared to be military uniform, the official said.
The recorded images of Shalit, 23, were handed over in exchange for Israel’s release of 20 Palestinian women from its jails, one of whom brought home a 20-month-old boy born in prison to a joyful reception in the Islamist-run Gaza Strip.
The swap with Hamas, brokered by German and Egyptian diplomacy, could be a step towards a larger prisoner release and eventual freedom for Shalit, priorities for Israel and Hamas since his capture in a cross-border raid in June 2006. “Although the path to his release is still long and difficult, the knowledge that he is healthy encourages us all,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying by his spokesman Nir Hefetz.
Hefetz told reporters: “The prime minister believes the video is important because it confirms Gilad Shalit’s condition and places total responsibility for Gilad’s well-being on Hamas.”
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he hoped it would be “a step on the way to freeing our men and women prisoners from occupation jails”. “I hope it will be step towards Palestinian reconciliation and national unity. I see the Palestinian people today united behind this step,” he told a crowd welcoming home Fatima al-Zaq, who was pregnant when arrested and gave birth in jail.
Shalit, who is also a French citizen, served in a tank unit. He was last seen by Israelis when Islamist militants tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and killed two of his fellow soldiers. Two attackers were also killed and Shalit was abducted.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has not visited Shalit and only a few letters and an audio tape have reached his parents, who have waged a campaign for his release.
Israeli officials said the video was authenticated before the women were released. Shalit’s parents saw copies before deciding to make it public later in the day.
The video was handed over as a convoy of Red Cross jeeps carried 18 freed women prisoners over the Beitunya checkpoint into the West Bank while al-Zaq went to Gaza with her baby. The final prisoner in the swap was due to be released on Sunday.
In both the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, the first stop for the freed women was the government headquarters, where official receptions and celebrations were held and speakers demanded the release of hundreds of long-term prisoners.
On the Gaza side of Israel’s Erez checkpoint, hundreds of Palestinians waving the green Hamas flag, the black banners of Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian national colours joined a convoy into the Mediterranean coast city with sirens wailing.
Haniyeh sent his official car to pick up 40-year-old al-Zaq and son Youssef and take them direct to his office.
The baby was snatched from her arms in a media frenzy and passed overhead to the prime minister, who held up the wailing child to the ecstatic crowd and kissed him repeatedly.
The al-Zaq house was decorated with posters and flags.
“We feel wonderful,” said her husband Mohammed, a member of Islamic Jihad. “People are celebrating with us, from all factions … the prisoners’ release unites us.”
In exchange for Shalit, Hamas is seeking the release of hundreds of prisoners, including militants convicted of deadly attacks whom Israel has said in the past it would not set free.
Israel holds more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. It said said none of the women freed on Friday was directly involved in killings or serving more than two years.