Captured three years ago by Hamas, the Israeli soldier Cpl Gilad Shalit appears in a short video.
Captured Israeli soldier looks well in brief video
TEL AVIV // Looking thin and drawn, with dark circles under his eyes, Cpl Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas three years ago, appeared in a video shown on Israeli television yesterday, the first breakthrough in long-running negotiations over a prisoner swap. The footage was part of a deal with Hamas, brokered by Egyptian and German mediators, in which Israel freed 19 female Palestinian prisoners from its jails yesterday and is due to release another woman tomorrow.
The pact signalled a breakthrough in negotiations that could result in Cpl Shalit being swapped for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. It could also be an initial step towards the easing of Israel's crippling blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, imposed after Cpl Shalit was kidnapped. Furthermore, some commentators viewed the exchange as one of the only tangible agreements in recent years between Israelis and Palestinians, whose long-simmering conflict has shown few signs of being defused.
In the first visual proof that he is alive, Cpl Shalit, now 23, smiled slightly and spoke directly to the camera in a composed, though at times shaky, voice. Clean-shaven, wearing olive-green military fatigues and sitting in front of a bare light-coloured wall, he read from a sheet of paper that he held on top of a Hamas-published newspaper dated September 14, meant to show when the footage was taken.
In the recording, which is two minutes and 42 seconds long, Cpl Shalit appealed to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, saying that he hoped "the current government does not waste this opportunity to reach an agreement that would allow me to fulfil my dream and be released". Addressing his family, Cpl Shalit recounts a visit by his father and two siblings to his military base in northern Israel some six months before his capture, in which they photographed him on top of a tank and dined together in a nearby Druze restaurant. He ends the statement by saying: "I want to tell you that I am feeling well in terms of health and that the mujahideen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas's military wing] are treating me excellently."
Mr Netanyahu, in a statement released by his office, cautioned that negotiations towards the release of Cpl Shalit were "still long and arduous". "The footage is important because it verifies Gilad Shalit's situation and determines that Hamas is absolutely responsible for his health and well-being." Israel said the released female inmates, all but one of whom were from the West Bank, were all due to finish their terms within two years and none had been directly involved in the killings of Israeli civilians. Hamas officials said that four of the inmates belonged to their group and five were from Fatah, the rival secular movement that holds sway over the West Bank. Several others were from the more extremist Islamic Jihad and from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The only Gaza resident freed was Fatima Younis Zaq, 45, who had been arrested in May 2007 on suspicion of planning a suicide bombing and who gave birth in jail to a son, her ninth child. Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, said as he greeted Ms Zaq: "This is a day of victory for resistance and steadfastness." Cpl Shalit, also a French citizen, was abducted by militants in June 2006 in a cross-border raid and then dragged, injured, into Gaza.
He has become a household name in Israel, where the media has obsessively covered any development concerning his captivity and where his image often appears on billboards and bumper stickers calling for his release. Yesterday, television stations interrupted hours of regular programming to air reruns of his video. Israel is believed to have at first resisted making the recording available to the public, partly on concern that it would draw more public pressure on the government to bring to Cpl Shalit's release by giving in to Hamas's demands.
Talks over the prisoner swap failed to produce tangible results during previous Israeli government headed by Ehud Olmert, who had served as premier when Cpl Shalit was kidnapped. A last-minute effort to clinch an agreement in March, before Mr Olmert left office, was hampered after he refused to release 125 long-serving prisoners - many of whom were convicted by Israel of involvement in deadly attacks against Israelis - out of 450 demanded by Hamas.
Any future prisoner exchange would also be a win for Hamas, as Palestinians view brethren held by Israel as heroes. Such support could be especially handy for the group as it prepares to face off against the rival Fatah in Palestinian elections that are anticipated to take place next year. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org