x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Hamas hands over video in exchange for prisoners

Hamas hands over a tape showing an Israeli soldier held captive since 2006.

JERUSALEM // Hamas militants handed over a two-minute video showing a healthy-looking Israeli soldier held captive since 2006, and in exchange Israel freed 19 Palestinian women prisoners on Friday - the first tangible step toward defusing a key flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. An Israeli official who saw the video of Sgt Gilad Schalit said the 23-year-old looked good and spoke lucidly about something from his past. He gave no further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because the footage had not been released to the public. It was the first glimpse of Sgt Schalit since his capture nearly 3 1/2 years ago. Before Friday, the only signs of life had been three letters and an audio tape. The prisoners' triumphant return home to a flag waving and cheering crowd, together with the video's arrival in Israel, gave hope to each side that a wider, long-awaited prisoner swap is now in the offing. Hamas is demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as their price for Sgt Schalit, whose capture in a bloody cross-border raid has touched a raw nerve in a country where most families have loved ones in the military. Friday's deal could also herald an end to a crippling, Israel-led blockade of Gaza, which has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's winter war there. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza two years ago. Israel has made it clear that it will not ease the embargo before the serviceman is freed. About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying 18 of the women into the West Bank. The prisoners blew kisses to the crowd through the vehicles' open windows. Later, the prisoners were greeted by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his walled compound, as elated related relatives threw fistfuls of sweets in the air. The women had been jailed for relatively minor offences and were close to release. Only a few were members of militant groups, and most were assigned supporting roles, such as helping bombers reach their targets, said Bothaina Duqmaq, a prisoners' rights activist in the West Bank, Israel's lead negotiator in prisoner swap talks viewed the video first in Tel Aviv to determine its authenticity. The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak viewed it. A copy of the disc was also delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family in northern Israel. Channel 1 TV said Sgt Schalit appeared healthy and clean-shaven, and that his hair had been trimmed. Reporters and cameramen thronged the Schalit home as an army general walked with a manila envelope carrying the video inside. Sgt Schalit was captured in June 2006 by Hamas-linked militants in Gaza who tunnelled under the border into Israel, killed two other soldiers and dragged him into Palestinian territory.

*AP