Women prisoners go free in return for a glimpse of hostage

Video shows soldier seized by Gaza militants in 2006 in good health after Israel opens its prisons
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The Independent Online

The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was seized by Gaza militants in June 2006 appears in good health in a video handed over by his captors in exchange for the release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners.

The first video proof since his capture that Corporal Shalit is alive, and apparently of sound mind, yesterday showed him holding a copy of the pro-Hamas Arabic language newspaper Falasteen dated 14 September. He also refers to a private family memory from six months before his capture in a cross-border raid which left two of his fellow soldiers dead. The video was released for broadcast by the Shalit family after they watched it at their home in northern Israel as jubilant Palestinian families welcomed back 19 of the women – all but one in the West Bank – after they were freed from Israeli prisons. The 20th woman – and the second from Gaza – will be released tomorrow.

The exchange of the video for the prisoners was brokered by German mediators seen by both Hamas and Israel as bringing fresh impetus to negotiations for an eventual large-scale prisoner exchange in return for the freeing of Corporal Shalit. In the two and half minute video, Corporal Shalit, 23, who looks gaunt and thin but otherwise in good condition, says in Hebrew, reading from a text: "I am Gilad, son of Aviva and Noam Shalit, brother of Hadas and Yoel, who live in Mitzpe Hila. My identification number is 300097029. Today is Monday, 14/9/2009. As you can see, I am holding in my hand today's edition of the newspaper Palestine [Falasteen], September 14, 2009, published in Gaza. I read newspapers in search of information about me. I hope to find some kind of information indicating that my release and return home is imminent. I have been waiting and hoping for a long time for the day that I am released."

"I hope that the current administration, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, won't waste this opportunity to achieve a deal and, as a result, I will finally be able to realise my dream and be released."

In remarks directed personally at his parents and siblings, he says: "I want to send my regards to my family and to tell them that I love them and miss them very much, and pray for the day that I will see them again.

"Dad, Yoel and Hadas, do you remember the day you came to visit me at my base in the Golan Heights, on December 31, 2005, which, if I'm not mistaken, is known as Revaiyah Bet? We took a tour around the base and you took my picture atop the Merkava tank, and on one of the old tanks at the entrance to the base. We then went to a restaurant in one of the Druze villages, and, on the way, we took each other's pictures on the side of the road with the snow-capped Hermon mountain as our backdrop."

"I want to tell you that I feel well in medical terms, and that the mujahedin from the al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas's military wing] are treating me excellently. Thank you very much and goodbye". Although the corporal is seated for most of the tape, at this point he gets out of his chair and walks forward, apparently to show that is in good physical shape.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau described the video as "encouraging". After telephoning Noam Shalit, Mr Netanyahu said that the video was important because it showed "Gilad Shalit's situation and determines that Hamas is absolutely responsible for his health and well-being." He added : "Even though the path to Gilad's release is still long and arduous, the knowledge that he is well and in good health encourages us all."

The de facto Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said the release of the prisoners was "a day of great hope" and added: "I hope this is going to be a step on the way to freeing our men and women prisoners from occupation jails." Mr Haniyeh claimed that the release of "our incarcerated sisters" was an amazing accomplishment for the Palestinians who captured Shalit, adding that it was "a great triumph to the resistance".

Mr Haniyeh spoke beside Fatima al-Zaq, a 40-year-old freed prisoner. A member of Islamic Jihad, she was pregnant when arrested, and yesterday on her release was holding baby son born in jail. On the Palestinian side of the Erez checkpoint a crowd of hundreds waving green Hamas flags, the black banners of Islamic Jihad, and flags in national Palestinian colours followed a convoy including Mr Haniyeh's car, which he had sent to collect the mother and son .

On arrival at his office, the toddler was taken from his mother's arms and passed over jostling Palestinian journalists to Mr Haniyeh, who held up the boy and repeatedly kissed him. Mrs Zaq's husband, Mohammed, who is also a member of Islamic Jihad, declared: "We feel wonderful. People are celebrating with us, from all factions ... The prisoners' release unites us."

Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, last night called for "negotiations to continue determinedly until Gilad can go back home." He said he and his wife were "concerned in the face of the images we saw. We must not forget that Gilad is suffering, and rotting in the Hamas prison."

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