Israel exchanges prisoners for tape

Nineteen Palestinian women prisoners were freed in a breakthrough swap for a video of soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Gaza militants since 2006.

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Earlier the Palestinians left the HaSharon women’s prison in central Israel in police vans, with 18 heading to the Ofer military base in the occupied West Bank and one to a prison in the southern city of Ashkelon.

As part of a three-stage deal, Israelis were to ensure the video of Shalit met the established criteria before giving the green light for the women to be freed to the West Bank and Gaza.

The DVD has been watched by military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and was then transferred to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officials said.

The 23-year-old spoke in a coherent manner on the video, which appeared to be recent, television and radio reported, without giving sources.

Successful negotiations

The deal was a major breakthrough after nearly three years of on-again, off-again Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas. German mediators also joined the talks in July.

It was the first time Israel has released prisoners as part of the talks, and the first video footage of Shalit since his capture. Previously his family had received an audio recording and several letters.

Cairo has been trying to broker a deal under which hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would be released in exchange for Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since he was seized in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006.

Shalit, now 23, was seized after Gaza militants, including Hamas, tunnelled out of the Palestinian territory and attacked an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers.

Netanyahu’s office stressed that the latest development did not herald Shalit’s imminent release, but was meant as a confidence-building measure ahead of “decisive stages in the negotiations,” and warned that the talks were still expected to be “long and arduous.”

Women celebrate

All but one of the Palestinian women released are from the West Bank and none has been directly implicated in killing Israelis.

Another woman is set to be released in the coming days as part of the swap, Israeli officials said.

“Today is like a huge party,” said Nisrin Hamdan, 26, as she waited outside Ofer military camp with several of her siblings, all wearing T-shirts bearing a picture of their 60-year-old mother, held for assisting a suicide bomber.

“My mother has been absent for seven years and today we will have her in our home.”

Also among those awaiting their loved ones was Nawal Hossein, 37, an aunt of a 22-year-old prisoner who was serving a 20-month sentence for plotting to become a suicide bomber.

“We are very happy, but our joy is not complete because there are still many Palestinians in prison,” she said.

A total of 7,200 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons, and those freed were among 60 women prisoners. The prisons service says 320 are under 18 years old.

The freed women include members of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

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