JERUSALEM – In the first video images since he was captured by Palestinian militants in 2006, Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit — looking thin but healthy, his hair freshly trimmed — sent love to his family, appealed for his freedom and held up a newspaper to prove the footage was recent.
Israel freed 19 Palestinian women from prison on Friday in exchange for the video, raising hopes for the young soldier's release and taking a step toward defusing a key flash point in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.
In the West Bank, jubilant Palestinians cheered and waved flags as the freed women returned home, some with prison-born babies in tow. And in Gaza, ruled by the Hamas militants holding Schalit, the prime minister called the swap a victory for Palestinians.
Looking fresh-faced and at times nervous in the video, Schalit talked of his love for his parents and siblings and recalled a family prayer on a roadside with a view of snowcapped mountains.
"Shalom, I am Gilad, son of Noam and Aviva Schalit, brother of Hadas and Yoel," the fatigue-clad 23-year-old soldier said in Hebrew at the beginning of the two-minute, forty-second video, which at several points showed him smiling tentatively. "My ID number is 300097029."
By pulling on the heartstrings of Israelis, nearly all of whom have loved ones in the military, the video could increase domestic pressure on Israel's government to meet Hamas' demand for Schalit's release: freedom for hundreds of jailed militants.
Friday's deal, brokered by Egyptian and German mediators, could also herald an end to a crippling, Israel-led blockade of Gaza, which has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's bruising war there last winter. Israel has said it will not consider easing the embargo until Schalit is home.
In the footage, Schalit sat on a plastic chair placed against a blank wall and read from a piece of paper tucked behind an Arabic-language newspaper. He said he was in good health and that his captors were treating him "excellently."
At one point, he rose and took a few steps — apparently to show he is able-bodied. At another, he held the newspaper to the camera to show the date — Sept. 14, 2009 — as proof the footage was taken recently.
"I hope the current government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will not squander now the opportunity to reach an agreement and that I can finally realize my dream to be released," he said.
"I want to send greetings to my family and tell them I love them and miss them very much and wish for the day I will see them again," he added.
Speaking lucidly and reading clearly, the clean-shaven Schalit recalled in detail a 2005 visit his family paid to his military base, an apparent attempt by Hamas to prove he was not an impostor.
There were hints of circles around the young man's eyes, which were without the glasses he had worn before his capture.
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." He also held Hamas responsible for the soldier's well-being.
Schalit's capture and long captivity have touched a raw nerve in Israel, where people hold regular vigils for his release, motorists have bumper stickers that say "Gilad lives" and where one news anchor ends his broadcast each night by reciting the number of days Schalit has been held.
Israel's lead negotiator in prisoner swap talks viewed the video first in Tel Aviv to determine its authenticity before ordering the Palestinian women released. The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where Netanyahu viewed it.
A copy of the disc was delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family in northern Israel, and the family later agreed to make the video public.
About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying 18 of the freed women into the West Bank. The prisoners, wearing the head scarves 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 had not been able to visit her mother for more than a year because of Israeli travel restrictions.
"It's indescribable," Nasreen said of the reunion. "We are preparing a tremendous celebration."
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 with her youngest son, who was born in prison. She received a hero's welcome and was greeted by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, in a chaotic scene.
Haniyeh called Friday's swap "a day of victory for the Palestinian will, for the Palestinian resistance, for Palestinian steadfastness."
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.
Prisoner swaps, though not uncommon for Israel, are controversial at home because of their potential to encourage hostage-taking.
On Friday, Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, threatened to capture more Israeli soldiers to exchange them for more Palestinian prisoners.
Speaking in Damascus, Syria, Mashaal said those who captured Schalit and held him were capable of taking "Schalit and Schalit and Schalit until there is not even one prisoner in the enemy's jails."
In northern Israel, reporters and cameramen thronged the Schalit home as an army general walked in with a manila envelope containing the video. Policemen stood guard outside the house. A spokeswoman for the family said the Schalits would have no immediate 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. Before Friday, the only signs of life had been three letters and an audiotape.
Israel and Hamas shun each other, and German and Egyptian mediators have been acting as go-betweens.
The Palestinians want Israel to trade up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit, including many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis. More than 9,000 Palestinians are jailed in Israel — one of the most emotional issues in Palestinian society, where nearly every family has been affected.
Dov Weisglass, once a senior aide to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, predicted Israel and Hamas were heading toward a resolution of the hostage ordeal.
"This is creating enormous emotional pressure to get him released," he said.