Israel today released a video showing captured soldier Gilad Shalit, the first time he has been seen since he was abducted by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid from Gaza three years ago.
In exchange for the two-minute video, Israel freed 19 Palestinian women prisoners this morning, with one more slated to be set free on Saturday.
The video was transferred to the Israelis by a German mediator who is coordinating indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Once officials were satisfied it was shot recently and it was genuine, orders were given for the release of the prisoners.
The video shows Shalit, 23, seated and holding a Palestinian newspaper, as the camera zooms in to glimpse the day and date, Monday, Sept. 14th, proof enough for the Israelis that the video of the sergeant was recently made.
He looks to be in good health and speaks clearly. At one point, he stands and walks toward the camera to show he is uninjured. He calls for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work for his release, and sends messages of love to his family. A copy of the video was delivered to the Shalit family home this morning and they approved the public release of the pictures.
Outside an Israeli detention center in the occupied West Bank, crowds of relatives gathered to await the release of the Palestinian prisoners. A long line of Red Cross vehicles emerging from the gates sparked emotional scenes as the prisoners were embraced by relatives who swarmed around the convoy.
One prisoner was released back into Gaza itself. She and the child she gave birth to inside an Israeli prison were personally greeted by Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' senior political leader.
Shalit's family, meanwhile, received its own copy of the video. He has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006 and, in that time, only three letters and an audio tape have been released.
His family has been at the center of the campaign for his freedom. His father, Noam, has travelled the world highlighting his son's plight. A vigil of supporters has been established outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, the young soldier's fate has become a national issue.
Both sides are describing today's exchange as a minor breakthrough. Israel and Hamas are locked in complex indirect negotiations and the price Hamas is demanding is high.
The Islamic group, which now controls Gaza and was behind the soldier's abduction in June 2006, wants 450 senior Palestinian prisoners for Shalit's return. Some of the prisoners include those responsible for shootings and bombing attacks, which claimed hundreds of Israeli lives.
Negotiations have spanned the changing Israeli governments of Ehud Olmert and now Benjamin Netanyahu. Both have had to contend with a rising tide of popular frustration with Shalit's continued detention, and the widely held sympathy for his family in a nation where everyone's son and daughter must serve in the army.
How Far Will Israel go for Gilad Shalit?
There will be great pressure on the government to release the video for public viewing, as many Israelis are personally invested in his case.
On the other side, Hamas knows it wields a trump card. If it succeeds in winning the release of the 450 prisoners, it will have a delivered a major victory, at a time when its popularity in Gaza and the West Bank has been flagging.
The cause of the almost 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails remains one of the biggest issues for ordinary Palestinians. Negotiating the release of such a large number would deliver significant political capital.
It is by no means clear whether Israel is willing to pay such a heavy price for the return of a single soldier. Hamas has shown little flexibility in its demand and recent Israeli demands that some of the Palestinians would have to go into exile in Gaza or overseas have stymied the talks.