Israel frees 19 Palestinian prisoners in proof-of-life deal


Tel Aviv/Betunia (West Bank) : Israel freed 19 female Palestinian prisoners late Friday morning, in exchange for a proof-of-life video of a soldier held in the Gaza Strip for over three years.

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Although observers say the swap could be for first step in a deal to bring Gilad Shalit back to Israel, Israeli officials have cautioned that the soldier’s release may still a long way off.

The video of Shalit, running to over two minutes, showed the soldier looking in good health, thin and clean-shaven, Israeli media reported.

He was shown holding an Arabic newspaper dated Sep 14 and said he felt well.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the road towards a real swap was “still long”, but that knowledge that Shalit was healthy and in good shape “encourages us all”.

The video is the first of Shalit since he was snatched June 25, 2006 during a cross-border raid launched from the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which is holding him, has released one audio tape of his voice, and transferred three letters to his family, but otherwise kept him largely incommunicado.

The Islamist movement is demanding Israel free 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the soldier.

The largely Egyptian-mediated negotiations to free him have been unsuccessful until now, but according to reports progress has been made since a German mediator joined the talks.

In contrast to the anxiety at the Shalit home, the returning Palestinian prisoners received a joyous welcome when they crossed into Palestinian territory, although observers noted that their reception at presidential headquarters in Ramallah was less festive than that of previous prisoner releases.

This, they speculated, was due in part to the small number of prisoners freed, and because the deal freeing them had been arranged by Hamas, the fierce rival of President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party.

In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he hoped Friday’s deal would be the first step towards “achieving an honourable and comprehensive prisoner exchange agreement”.

Hamas was planning to capitalise on the deal by planning large celebrations in Gaza.

The swap – the first of its kind between Hamas and Israel since the Shalit affair began over three years ago – could mark a breakthrough in the protracted efforts to free the soldier.

The German mediator, whose identity is being kept secret, began his work early this summer, meeting more frequently and intensively with the parties, which have no direct contact as they do not recognize each other, than the Egyptian mediators had done thus far.