- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

JERUSALEM I 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 Sgt. Schalit were the first to be released since his capture more than three years ago by Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip. Dressed in olive drab military fatigues, he 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.

Sgt. 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’ exiled leader, however, threatened to capture more Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them for the release of more Palestinian prisoners.

Speaking in Damascus, Syria, Khaled Mashaal said those who were able to capture Sgt. Schalit and hold him safely for more than three years are capable of capturing “Schalit and Schalit and Schalit until there is not even one prisoner in the enemy’s jails.”

Hamas is demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as their price for the Israeli, 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 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.

About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying the freed Palestinian 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 Authority 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.”

Mr. Abbas told the women their “sacrifice will not go in vain” and prayed for the release of other prisoners.

Sgt. 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, his 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.

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