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Israel and Hamas agree to a swap

They will exchange 20 female Palestinian prisoners for a recent videotape of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized in 2006 near Gaza. Any accord on his release would involve a much larger swap.

October 01, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Shortly after he was seized by Palestinian militants, Gilad Shalit wrote of his ordeal as an "intolerable and inhumane nightmare." The letter, one of just three the captive Israeli soldier has been allowed to write, appealed to authorities to bring him home from his "closed and solitary prison" in the Gaza Strip.

Wednesday, after more than three years of indirect negotiations for his freedom, Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers reported the first tentative step toward a deal -- the exchange of 20 female Palestinian prisoners for a recent videotape as proof of Shalit's well-being.

The swap, scheduled for Friday, was described in Israel's announcement as a confidence-building measure in advance of "the decisive stages" of talks aimed at trading the 23-year-old conscript for a far larger number of Palestinian militants.

Israel has conducted prisoner exchanges before. But this is believed to be the first time during its decades of armed conflicts with Arab neighbors that the Jewish state has agreed to trade imprisoned adversaries for information about an Israeli captive.

The negotiations ahead are expected to be difficult, fraught with the same obstacles that have long frustrated Egyptian mediators. Among the 1,000 or so prisoners Hamas wants freed are some Israel has insisted on keeping locked up for deadly attacks against its citizens.

"This is a positive step in the negotiations," Israeli President Shimon Peres said Wednesday. "But the road to his release is still long and not simple, and we do not want to create any illusions."

Israel and Hamas nonetheless have reasons for wanting to strike a deal.

Shalit's homecoming would end a painful ordeal for Israel, a country where military service is mandatory for most Jews. Israelis have rallied behind the soldier and his family, which has led a campaign to get him freed.

For Hamas, Shalit's release would satisfy a key Israeli condition for ending the economic blockade that has caused shortages of many basic items for Gaza's 1.5 million people and blocked repairs of the extensive damage caused by Israel's 22-day military offensive last winter.

The restrictions were tightened after the soldier's capture and again when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

Hamas officials said the videotape of Shalit was about one minute long, was filmed recently and showed him reading "something current." An Israeli official said the recording had been turned over to a German mediator in Cairo for delivery to Israel on Friday.

The soldier's parents and family issued a statement saying they yearned "to receive a first authentic proof of life from Gilad."

Shalit, then a 19-year-old tank crewman, has not been seen in public since June 2006, when fighters from Hamas and other Gaza-based militant groups tunneled into Israel, attacked a border base and dragged him into Gaza.

Hamas has rejected requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the soldier, who has been promoted to staff sergeant during his captivity.

Until now, the most recent communication from him had been a letter received by his parents in February 2008. In addition to permitting the three letters, Hamas released a 2007 audiotape of the soldier that is believed to be authentic.

Wednesday's announcement of the tape-for-prisoners deal was made almost simultaneously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem and masked representatives of Hamas' military wing at a news briefing in Gaza City.

"This simple deal is a precursor, God willing, to a comprehensive deal," said a Hamas spokesman using the pseudonym Abu Ubeida.

Officials on both sides said German mediators, who have been assisting the Egyptians since the summer, played a key role in arranging the swap.

Netanyahu's office said the Israeli leader approved the swap because it was "important that the world know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his well-being and fate."

The 20 prisoners Israel agreed to let go come from various militant factions. All but one are from the West Bank.

Israel's prison service said the women had been arrested for offenses including possession of weapons and attempted attacks on police and soldiers. Their names were published Wednesday, allowing a legally mandated 48-hour period for court appeals against their release before the swap.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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