JERUSALEM: An Israeli soldier held captive for more than three years in the Gaza Strip says in a video that he is being treated well by his Palestinian captors and sends his love to his parents.
In the first visual proof that he is alive, Sgt. Gilad Schalit appears thin but is able to stand unaided. He appeals to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring him home.
In the video released Friday, Schalit read from a sheet of paper while holding a Palestinian newspaper dated Sept. 14 to show when the footage was made.
In exchange for the message, Israel freed 19 Palestinian women held in Israeli jails. The deal is a first tangible step toward defusing a key flash point in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas militants on Friday traded a two-minute video showing an apparently unharmed captured Israeli soldier for 19 Palestinian women held in Israeli jails — the first tangible step toward defusing a key flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Sgt. Gilad Schalit, taken captive by Hamas-linked militants in June 2006, appeared healthy. An official who had seen the video said the 23-year-old serviceman spoke lucidly about an event in his past.
He gave no further details, but Hamas officials reported on the group's Web site that the soldier discussed an accident he had in the military before he was taken captive.
It was the first glimpse of Schalit since his capture. Before Friday, the only signs of life had been three letters and an audio tape.
The Palestinian prisoners' triumphant return home to a flag-waving and cheering crowd, together with the video's arrival in Israel, gave hope to each side that a wider, long-awaited prisoner swap was in the offing.
Hamas is demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as their price for Schalit, whose capture in a bloody cross-border raid 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, which has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's winter war there.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas, a violent group backed by Iran and Syria, seized power in Gaza two years ago. Israel has made it 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.
By late afternoon, the video had not been released, but Israeli media reported that it would be aired soon.
A Hamas Web site cites Hamas officials as saying the video was filmed on Sept. 14, and shows Schalit, dressed in a military uniform, sitting on a chair and reading a daily newspaper published in Gaza.
Schalit demonstrates his good health by standing on the chair for five seconds before sitting down again, the officials said.
Israeli media, citing officials who had seen the video, confirmed that Schalit was seen with a newspaper dated Sept. 14 — Hamas' proof the footage was taken recently.
Israel's Channel 2 TV said Schalit was reading from a text. The young man addressed his parents in the video and discussed the military accident, it reported. He also addressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, media reported, without giving further details.
Channel 2 reported that Schalit appeared thin and close-cropped, and had dark circles around his eyes.
A spokesman for Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, said that "although the path to Gilad's release is still long ... the fact that he is healthy and whole is encouraging." He also held Hamas responsible for the soldier's well-being.
Israel's lead negotiator in prisoner swap talks viewed the video first in Tel Aviv to determine its authenticity. The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak viewed it.
A copy of the disc was also delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family in northern Israel.
About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying 18 of the 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 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 hadn't 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."
Abbas told the women their "sacrifice will not go in vain" and prayed for the release of other prisoners.
Another woman, 41-year-old Fatima Ziq, returned to her home in Gaza City, where she received a hero's welcome and was greeted by Haniyeh in a chaotic scene.
Ziq, a mother of nine, carried her youngest, Yousef, who was born in prison, as Haniyeh led her into his office. Haniyeh put a string of bright red carnations around her neck, and then tried to do the same to the 18-month-old Yousef, who recoiled and cried out.
Haniyeh called Friday's swap "a day of victory for the Palestinian will, for the Palestinian resistance, for Palestinian steadfastness," he said.
Yet another prisoner will be released to Gaza on Sunday, bringing to 20 the total number of women freed as part of the exchange, Israel's prisons service said.
The women had been jailed for relatively minor offenses and were close to release.
Reporters and cameramen thronged the Schalit home as an army general walked in with a manila envelope carrying the video inside. Policemen stood guard outside the house, which was shown continuously on Israeli TV stations.
A spokeswoman for the family said the Schalits would have no immediate public comment.
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.
Israel and Hamas shun each other, and German and Egyptian mediators have been acting as go-betweens in swap talks.
The Palestinians want Israel to trade up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit, including many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis. Talks have snagged over the specific prisoners the Palestinians want freed and where they are to go after their release.
Still, both Hamas and Israel appear eager to wrap up a deal.
Schalit's return would end a painful chapter in Israel, where military service is compulsory and his long captivity has touched a raw nerve.
Many Israelis have rallied behind the soldier and his family, holding protests calling for his release and decorating their cars with bumper stickers bearing his name. As speculation about a possible prisoner swap grows, however, arguments against his release have grown louder, because of the high price Israel would have to pay.
Hamas' profile, meanwhile, would be raised in Palestinian territories by the loosening of the blockade and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Prisoners enjoy an eminent status in Palestinian society because so many families have members in Israeli jails. A large-scale release would be a coup for Hamas as it jockeys for power against the moderate government led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.