JERUSALEM — Israel released 19 Palestinian female prisoners Friday after it received a two-minute videotape of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit holding an Arabic-language newspaper dated Sept. 14, 2009, proof that he was still alive three years after his capture.
The exchange raised hopes that Israel and Hamas militants would agree in the next few months to exchange Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
In the tape, Shalit appeared in good spirits, though he asked the Israeli government to speed up negotiations for his freedom. He appeared to have recovered from a wound he received during his capture.
"I have been waiting and hoping for my release a long time already. I hope the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu will not waste the opportunity to finish the deal," he said.
It was the first video showing Shalit since he was taken from his border post along the southern Gaza Strip in June 2006. Previously, Hamas had limited word from Shalit to one audiotape and several letters. Intelligence officials have said they think that Shalit is being held in an underground bunker in Gaza.
Prime Minister Netanyahu described the video as "encouraging." Shalit's family members also watched the tape and said they had no objection to its being broadcast.
All 19 Palestinians freed had less than two years to go on their sentences, including several who'd been convicted of attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians. One, who'd given birth while in prison, returned to Gaza; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the others in an official ceremony in Ramallah in the West Bank.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh described the deal as a "victory for the resistance."
Israeli officials cautioned that a final deal for Shalit's freedom could take months to negotiate.
"It is an important step but only a single step," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in remarks that were broadcast on Israeli television. "The road for his liberation is still a long one and a complicated one."
Hamas reportedly has demanded that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier, including several who've killed Israeli soldiers and civilians, a demand that Israel has refused.
Other reported sticking points are an Israeli demand that all released prisoners be sent to Gaza, including those from the West Bank, and a Hamas demand that Israelis free Israeli Arabs as part of the exchange.
Egyptian officials have been trying to mediate a deal for several years. More recently, German mediators became involved as well, and they were responsible for Friday's exchange.
Palestinian gunmen captured Shalit in a daring cross-border raid when the soldier, who's also a French citizen, was 19. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid. Since then, Shalit's family and supporters have kept steady pressure on the government to do more to win his freedom.
The case has sparked debate within Israel over how high a price the country should pay to gain the freedom of a single soldier.
"There is a limit to how much society has to sacrifice in order to redeem one captive," said Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research center in Jerusalem.
In the past, Israel has released hundreds of prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers and the bodies of soldiers.
If a deal does take place, Israel also might lift the crippling blockade of Gaza that it imposed in June 2007, after Hamas seized power in Gaza. The blockade makes it very difficult for any Palestinians to leave Gaza, except in humanitarian cases. Many consumer goods, including stationery and shampoo, are in short supply. The United Nations supplies food aid to more than 1 million Palestinians in Gaza and unemployment is more than 40 percent there.
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Middle East news at McClatchy's Checkpoint Jerusalem.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009