Hamas swaps video of Israeli soldier for prisoners

JERUSALEM – In the first video images since he was captured by Palestinian militants in 2006, Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit — looking thin but healthy, his hair freshly trimmed — sent love to his family, appealed for his freedom and held up a newspaper to prove the footage was recent.

Israel freed 19 Palestinian women from prison on Friday in exchange for the video, raising hopes for the young soldier's release and taking a step toward defusing a key flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

In the West Bank, jubilant Palestinians cheered and waved flags as the freed women returned home, some with prison-born babies in tow. And in Gaza, ruled by the Hamas militants holding Schalit, the prime minister called the swap a victory for Palestinians.

Looking fresh-faced and at times nervous in the video, Shalit talked of his love for his parents and siblings and recalled a family prayer on a roadside with a view of snow-capped mountains.

"Shalom, I am Gilad, son of Noam and Aviva Schalit, brother of Hadas and Yoel," the fatigue-clad 23-year-old soldier said in Hebrew at the beginning of the two-minute, forty-second video, which at several points showed him smiling tentatively. "My ID number is 300097029."

By pulling on the heartstrings of Israelis, nearly all of whom have loved ones in the military, the video could increase domestic pressure on Israel's government to meet Hamas' demand for Schalit's release: freedom for hundreds of jailed militants.

Friday's deal, brokered by Egyptian and German mediators, could also herald an end to a crippling, Israel-led blockade of Gaza, which has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's bruising war there last winter. Israel has said it will not consider easing the embargo until Schalit is home.

In the footage, Schalit sat on a plastic chair placed against a blank wall and read from a piece of paper tucked behind an Arabic-language newspaper. He said he was in good health and that his captors were treating him "excellently."

At one point, he rose and took a few steps — apparently to show he is able-bodied. At another, he held the newspaper to the camera to show the date — Sept. 14, 2009 — as proof the footage was taken recently.

"I hope the current government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will not squander now the opportunity to reach an agreement and that I can finally realize my dream to be released," he said.

"I want to send greetings to my family and tell them I love them and miss them very much and wish for the day I will see them again," he added.

Speaking lucidly and reading clearly, the clean-shaven Schalit recalled in detail a 2005 visit his family paid to his military base, an apparent attempt by Hamas to prove he was not an impostor.

There were hints of circles around the young man's eyes, which were without the glasses he had worn before his capture.

A spokesman for Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, said that "although the path to Gilad's release is still long and arduous, the fact that he is healthy and well encourages us all." He also held Hamas responsible for the soldier's well-being.

Schalit's capture and long captivity have touched a raw nerve in Israel, where people hold regular vigils for his release, motorists have bumper stickers that say "Gilad lives" and where one news anchor ends his broadcast each night by reciting the number of days Schalit has been held.

Israel's lead negotiator in prisoner swap talks viewed the video first in Tel Aviv to determine its authenticity before ordering the Palestinian women released. The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where Netanyahu viewed it.

A copy of the disc was delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family in northern Israel, and the family later agreed to make the video public.

Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Ben Hubbard in Gaza City contributed to this report.

giant marionette through Berlin. AP/Franka Bruns