JERUSALEM In the first glimpse of him since his capture more than three years ago, a thin but healthy-looking Israeli soldier said in a video released Friday that he is being treated well by his Palestinian captors and appealed to Israel’s leader to bring him home.
Israel received the two-minute video of Sgt. Gilad Schalit from Hamas militants after it released 19 female Palestinian prisoners earlier Friday in an exchange that is the first tangible step toward defusing a key flash point in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.
The images of Schalit were the first to be released since his capture 3 1/2 years ago by Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip. Dressed in olive drab military fatigues, Schalit sat in a chair in front of a bare wall reading a prepared statement tucked behind an Arabic-language newspaper, displayed to show the date, Sept. 14.
At one point, he rose from the chair and walked toward the camera and back, apparently to demonstrate he could stand on his own. He smiled several times during the video.
Speaking lucidly and reading clearly in Hebrew, he sent his love to his parents, recalled in detail a 2005 visit his family paid to his military base and appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “not to squander this opportunity” to bring him home.
“I read the paper to find material and hope to find any material about my release and my imminent return home,” he said.
Schalit, 23, said he was in good health and that his captors were treating him “excellently.” He was clean-shaven and his hair was closely cropped, but he was not wearing glasses, as he did before his capture.
The video’s arrival in Israel, together with the Palestinian prisoners’ triumphant return home to a flag-waving and cheering crowd, gave hope to each side that a wider, long-awaited prisoner swap was in the offing.
Hamas is demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as their price for Schalit, whose capture and drawn-out captivity 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 that has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel’s war there in December and January.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas, a violent group backed by Iran and Syria, seized power in Gaza two years ago. Israel has made it clear that it will not ease the embargo before the serviceman is freed.
Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, hailed the deal as a “triumph” for the armed Palestinian resistance against Israel.
The video opened with Schalit holding a daily Arabic-language newspaper published in Gaza on Sept. 14 – Hamas’ proof the footage was taken recently. He gave his name, the names of his parents and siblings, identified his hometown and recited his Israeli identity card number.
“I have longed for a long time for the day I will be released,” he said. “I hope the current government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will not squander now the opportunity to reach an agreement and that I can finally realize my dream to be released.
“I want to send greetings to my family and tell them I love them and miss them very much and wish for the day I will see them again,” he added.
Channel 10 TV commentators said Israel had demanded that Schalit get up and take a few steps to prove he was able-bodied. The details about his family’s visit to his military base, they said, were meant to prove the man reading the text was not an impostor
A spokesman for Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, said that “although the path to Gilad’s release is still long and arduous, the fact that he is healthy and well encourages us all.” He also held Hamas responsible for the soldier’s well-being.
Israel’s lead negotiator in prisoner swap talks viewed the video first in Tel Aviv to determine its authenticity before ordering the Palestinian women released. The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where Netanyahu viewed it.
A copy of the disc was delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family in northern Israel.
About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying 18 of the women into the West Bank. The prisoners, wearing the headscarves of devout Muslim women, blew kisses to the crowd through the vehicles’ open windows.
Later, the prisoners were greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his walled compound as elated relatives threw fistfuls of candy in the air.
Zhour Hamdan, arrested in 2003, was reunited with her eight children and saw her first granddaughter, 1-year-old Selina, for the first time. Her daughter Nasreen, 26, said she had not been able to visit her mother for more than a year because of Israeli movement restrictions.
“It’s indescribable,” Nasreen said of the reunion. “We are preparing a tremendous celebration at home.”
Abbas told the women their “sacrifice will not go in vain” and prayed for the release of other prisoners.
Another woman, 41-year-old Fatima Ziq, returned to her home in Gaza City, where she received a hero’s welcome and was greeted by Haniyeh in a chaotic scene.
Haniyeh called Friday’s swap “a day of victory for the Palestinian will, for the Palestinian resistance, for Palestinian steadfastness,” he said.
Another prisoner will be released to Gaza on Sunday, bringing to 20 the total number of women freed as part of the exchange, Israel’s prisons service said.
The women had been jailed for relatively minor offenses and were close to release.
Reporters and cameramen thronged the Schalit home as an army general walked in with a manila envelope containing the video. Policemen stood guard outside the house.
A spokeswoman for the family said the Schalits would have no immediate public comment.
Schalit was captured in June 2006 by Hamas-linked militants in Gaza who tunneled under the border into Israel, killed two other soldiers and dragged him bleeding into Palestinian territory. Before Friday, the only signs of life had been three letters and an audio tape.
Israel and Hamas shun each other, and German and Egyptian mediators have been acting as go-betweens in swap talks.
The Palestinians want Israel to trade up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit, including many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis.