Israel, Hamas in mutual gestures on prisoners
Israel will free 20 Palestinian women from jail as early as Friday in exchange for a videotape from Hamas proving an Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip since 2006 is alive, officials on both sides said on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Egyptian and German mediators are continuing to work on a final deal to swap the soldier, Gilad Shalit, for hundreds of Hamas prisoners. The negotiations are part of international efforts to ease Israel's blockade of Hamas-run Gaza.
"It is important for the entire world to know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his well-being and his fate," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
Though Israeli law generally holds up prisoner amnesties by 48 hours to allow for court challenges by victims of Palestinian attacks, a woman identifying herself as one of those on the release roster said she had gone free on Wednesday evening.
"The guy in charge of (Israel's) Hasharon Prison told me they are releasing me as part of Shalit deal," Bara Malaki said by phone from her home near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
She provided an identification number which corresponded to that published by Israel's Prison Service, where she was listed as having served a 10-month term for assaulting a policeman.
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza confirmed that Malaki had been released. Israeli officials had no immediate comment.
Shalit, now 23, was spirited into the Gaza Strip by Islamist militants who tunneled into Israel three years ago in a raid in which two Israeli soldiers and two of the attackers were killed.
An Israeli official said earlier on Wednesday the handover of the 20 women and the Shalit tape should take place on Friday.
He added that a German mediator had already seen the video and believed it genuinely showed Shalit during recent weeks -- and certainly after Israel's offensive in Gaza in December and January in which some 1,400 Palestinians were reported killed.
ALIVE AND MOVING
The video lasts about a minute, said Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the Hamas allies that took part in capturing Shalit.
"It shows Shalit alive and moving," Abu Mujahed said.
Announcement of the pending exchange was the first major sign of progress in efforts to put together a deal between Israel and Hamas Islamists.
But an Israeli official cautioned that "lengthy and difficult negotiations" were still ahead before any final swap.