Hamas releases video of Gilad Shalit, captive Israeli soldier
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Noam Shalit, the father of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, told France 24: "We're very worried by the situation being so long, 1,200 days." Israel released footage obtained from Hamas - who captured him in 2006 - showing the soldier alive.
AFP - Israel on Friday received footage showing soldier Gilad Shalit looking lucid and healthy after more than three years of Gaza captivity, in a swap under which it freed 19 Palestinian women prisoners.
Looking gaunt, the clean-shaven 23-year-old read from a piece of paper, at times smiling or repressing a grin, as he sat on a chair against a white wall in the footage made public just hours after the women were set free.
"I want to send my regards to my family and tell them that I love them and miss them and yearn for the day of my return," said Shalit, clean-shaven with his hair cut short and holding a copy of a Gaza newspaper dated September 14.
"I hope that the government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will not waste now an opportunity to reach a deal," he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister.
The exchange was seen as the largest breakthrough since Hamas and other militants captured Shalit in 2006, and as a key step toward an eventual swap that would see Israel free hundreds of prisoners for the soldier.
Hamas called the deal -- which marked the first prisoner release that the Islamists ruling Gaza have obtained since seizing the soldier -- a "victory for the resistance."
Netanyahu said the "importance of the tape is in confirming the condition of Gilad Shalit and in placing on Hamas the full responsibility for Gilad's health," his spokesman Nir Hefetz said.
"Although the road (to his release) is still long and arduous, knowing that he is healthy and in one piece is encouraging to us all," he added.
Shalit's father Noam called the swap "a first step."
"Now it's a new countdown" to Shalit's hoped-for release, he told AFP, adding however that he was "not particularly" optimistic that his son will be freed soon.
In the West Bank, friends, relatives and officials cheered and wept as the released women passed a checkpoint on their way to a ceremony hosted by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.
Eighteen of the women were taken to the West Bank and one to the Gaza Strip, while another will be freed in the coming days.
"To exchange one minute of Gilad Shalit for 20 ladies is a big victory," said Qiffah Afanah, who served nine months for assaulting a soldier.
She cried with joy as she hugged her father at the Ofer checkpoint where relatives, friends and officials cheered their homecoming.
In the Gaza Strip, Fatima al-Zaq stood stony-faced at a welcome ceremony hosted by the Hamas rulers of the Palestinian territory, holding her son Yusuf who was born while she was behind bars in Israel.
"Thank God and Hamas," she told the crowd, adding: "The joy will not be complete without the release of all the prisoners, especially the women."
Zaq and a niece of hers were arrested at Erez in May 2007, allegedly on their way to carry out suicide attacks in Israel. Zaq, then 39, was two months pregnant with her ninth child.
Israeli officials stressed that Friday's swap does not herald Shalit's imminent release, but was meant as a confidence-building measure ahead of "decisive stages in the negotiations."
It is the first time Israel has released prisoners as part of the talks and the video footage of Shalit is the first since his capture. Previously his family have received an audio recording and several letters.
France on Friday called for the soldier, who also holds French nationality, to be freed immediately.
Israel and Hamas have held nearly three years of on-again, off-again negotiations brokered by Egypt, and which German mediators joined in July.
Shalit was seized in June 2006 after militants, including Hamas members, tunnelled out of the Palestinian territory and attacked an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers.
None of the women released on Friday have been directly implicated in killing Israelis.
"Today is like a huge party," said Nisrin Hamdan, 26, at the Ofer checkpoint with her siblings, all wearing T-shirts bearing a picture of their 60-year-old mother, held for assisting a suicide bomber.
"My mother has been absent for seven years and today we will have her in our home."
A total of 7,200 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons, and those freed on Friday were among 60 women prisoners. The prisons service says 320 are under 18 years old.
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