Israel to Free 20 Prisoners for Videotape of Shalit


shalit2Israel will release 20 Palestinian women from prison this week in exchange for a videotape proving that Israeli soldier Gilad ben Aviva Shalit held in the Gaza Strip is still alive, Israel and Hamas announced today, in the first tangible sign of movement in more than three years of talks over the captive soldier’s fate. Shalit, a tank crewman seized by Hamas-linked militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, has not been seen since his capture.Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip said Shalit’s captors would release a recent videotape of the soldier in return for the freed prisoners. The swap is to take place on Friday.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said a forum of senior Israeli Cabinet ministers approved the deal, suggested by Egyptian and German mediators, as a “confidence-building measure.” It quoted a senior official in Netanyahu’s office as saying the negotiations are still “expected to be long and difficult.”

Shalit’s release would defuse a central point of contention and could help ease a crippling Israeli blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The deal was to be carried out, the statement said, “ahead of the decisive stages in the negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit and based on the Israeli government’s commitment to work with determination to bring him home quickly.”

Hamas is demanding that Israel release hundreds of prisoners, many of whom are serving lengthy sentences for violent attacks on Israelis, in exchange for the soldier. Israel has balked at many of Hamas’ demands.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Osama Muzini confirmed the deal, which he said was struck after German mediators asked for information on Shalit’s health and Hamas responded that “nothing is free.”

“Twenty prisoners will be released in exchange for the Zionist enemy’s learning about his life through a cassette that shows him and reassures the enemy that he is still alive,” Muzini said. A Hamas Web site reported that the videotape was about one minute long.

A spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing using the pseudonym Abu Obeida said the prisoners would come from various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, the rival Fatah movement and Islamic Jihad. He said one was from Gaza while the rest were from the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

“This simple deal is a precursor, God willing, to a comprehensive deal,” he said.

Israel says that while the women were jailed for security-related offenses, they were not directly involved in killing Israelis and are all within two years of the end of their prison sentences. Their names were to be published today, allowing a legally mandated 48-hour period for court appeals against their release before the deal is carried out.

A senior Egyptian official involved in the mediation said the move was designed to create “an atmosphere of trust.”

“There is no doubt that this step will support the efforts of all sides to solve the problem,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity under security guidelines.

Egypt has been trying to mediate a prisoner swap since Hamas-linked militants tunneled into Israel in June 2006 and attacked an Israeli tank, killing two crewmen and capturing Schalit.

Shalit has not been seen since his capture and the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him. But several letters and an audio recording have been released by his captors.

Netanyahu approved the deal because he believes it is important that the world know Shalit is alive and well and that his safety is Hamas’ responsibility, according to the statement from his office.

Both Hamas and Israel appear eager to wrap up a deal.

{Yair Israel/AP/I-Insider}