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Palestinians Release Video of Israeli Soldier as Part of Prisoner Exchange

BY Larisa Epatko  October 2, 2009 at 12:20 PM EST

Palestinians released from Israel as part of exchange; Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

A thin but healthy-looking Israeli soldier, captured more than three years ago, said in a video released Friday that he is being treated well by his Palestinian captors and asked to come home.

Hamas militants handed over the two-minute video of Sgt. Gilad Schalit — the first images of him seen since his capture — in exchange for Israel releasing 19 Palestinian women prisoners. The swap was brokered by German and Egyptian mediators.

Dressed in olive fatigues, Schalit, 23, sent his love to his parents, recalled 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, reported the Associated Press.

“I read the paper to find material and hope to find any material about my release and my imminent return home,” he said.

A spokesman for Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, said that “although the path to Gilad’s release is still long and arduous, the fact that he is healthy and well encourages us all,” quoted the AP. He also held Hamas responsible for the soldier’s well-being.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he hoped it would be “a step on the way to freeing our men and women prisoners from occupation jails,” reported Reuters.

“I hope it will be step towards Palestinian reconciliation and national unity. I see the Palestinian people today united behind this step,” he said.

The video accompanied the Palestinian prisoners’ return home to a flag-waving and cheering crowd. A copy of the disc was brought to Schalit’s parents in northern Israel.

Schalit was last seen by Israelis when Islamist militants tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and killed two of his fellow soldiers.

Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for freeing Schalit. Israel holds more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. The government said none of the women freed Friday was directly involved in killings or serving more than two years, according to Reuters.

Zhour Hamdan, arrested in 2003, was reunited with her eight children and saw her first granddaughter, 1-year-old Selina, for the first time, the AP reported. 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.”

Friday’s deal was viewed by some as a way to defuse a key flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian relations and possibly end a crippling, Israel-led blockade of Gaza.

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas, a violent group backed by Iran and Syria, seized power in Gaza two years ago, according to the AP. Israel has made it clear that it will not ease the embargo before Schalit is freed.