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Video-prisoners swap a day of emotion for Mideast

Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit appears healthy in a recent video. There is a tumultuous welcome in Gaza for one freed female Palestinian prisoner, as 18 others are greeted in the West Bank.

October 03, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — On a day of high emotion for both sides in the Middle East conflict, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip joyously welcomed home 19 female prisoners released by Israel in exchange for a video proving that an Israeli soldier captured three years ago and held in a clandestine jail is alive and well.

The video of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit was shown on Israeli television channels hours after officials judged it to be authentic, riveting a public that has followed the 23-year-old soldier's ordeal with deep anxiety.

Shalit looked thin but appeared to be healthy. He said he was being well treated by the Hamas militants who have held him since June 2006.

He spoke in a clear voice, sending love to his family and an appeal to Israel's leader to "not waste this opportunity" to negotiate his freedom.

"I have been waiting and yearning a long time for the day I will be released," he said, reading stiffly from a Hebrew text as he sat in a plastic chair against a bare wall.

Egyptian and German mediators arranged the video-for-prisoners swap, hoping to advance long-deadlocked indirect negotiations aimed at getting Shalit's release in a trade for hundreds of Palestinians accused of militant activity against the Jewish state.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, proclaimed Friday "a day of victory" for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel.

He spoke outside his office at a raucous hero's welcome for Fatima Younis Zaq, a 40-year-old mother of four who had been arrested in Israel on suspicion of plotting to blow herself up. Haniyeh sent an official car to the Gaza-Israel border Friday to pick up the woman and the 20-month-old son she bore in prison.

An ecstatic crowd outside Haniyeh's office snatched the toddler from her and passed him overhead into the embrace of the Hamas leader, who held the wailing boy up and kissed him repeatedly.

"I hope this will be a step on the way to freeing our men and women from the occupiers' jails," Haniyeh said.

The other 18 women, all from the West Bank, received a more subdued welcome from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters. His government played no role in their release, which for many Palestinians enhanced the prestige of his more militant Hamas rivals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the video made it clear that Hamas "is absolutely responsible for [Shalit's] health and well-being." He said it would be difficult to cut a wider deal with the Islamic group, which is demanding the release of many militants serving long sentences for attacks on Israelis.

"Even though the path to Gilad's release is still long and arduous, the knowledge that he is well and in good health encourages us all," Netanyahu said in a written statement.

In the video, Shalit held up an Arabic-language newspaper as the camera zoomed in on the date, Sept. 14, 2009. He spoke for 2 1/2 minutes, recalling details of a 2005 visit his family paid to his military base. Then he rose from his chair and walked toward the camera and back.

Those elements satisfied Israeli authorities that the video was produced recently, that it showed the 23-year-old Shalit rather than an impostor, and that he was lucid and capable of walking on his own.

Shalit was last seen in public being dragged into Gaza from an Israeli army post by militants who had tunneled under the border. Hamas has kept him hidden, barring visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross but allowing him to send home an audio recording and three letters.

The video was the first communication from the soldier since February 2008.

Shalit gave no clue about where he is being held but noted that Palestine, the newspaper in his hands, is published in Gaza.

He was clean shaven and wore green military fatigues. He smiled slightly several times, including when he said, "I am well in terms of my health. The mujahedin of the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade [Hamas' military wing] are treating me excellently."

Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, told Israel's Channel 2 television that he was "very concerned by the footage," despite its potential to advance the negotiations.

"Despite the initial impression of Gilad's seeming relatively well," he said, "we must not forget that he has been suffering and wasting away in a Hamas prison for nearly 1,200 days and nights."

Meanwhile, Israel won a tentative victory Friday when the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to delay until March a vote on a U.N. report alleging that Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during their cross-border conflict last winter.

Israel, backed by the United States, has rejected the findings as biased. It said the report's adoption by the 47-nation council would bring Israeli officials and soldiers a step closer to prosecution in the International Criminal Court and scuttle Israel's peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

After promoting a resolution to adopt the U.N. report, Palestinian Authority delegates to the council session in Geneva said they had opted for a delay under U.S. pressure.

American officials said the delay would give Israel and Hamas time to carry out their own investigations of alleged war crimes committed during the fighting.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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