Israel on Sunday released the last of 20 female Palestinian terrorists in exchange for a video tape released by Hamas showing abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit alive and well, despite more than three years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli defense officials who examined the tape over the weekend said they were satisfied with Hamas' offering, and noted that Shalit appeared to be in relatively good health and spirits. With the permission of the Shalit family, the video tape was later shown on Israeli television.
The London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on Sunday that the video tape deal is believed to closely precede an actual prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. According to the report, Israel has agreed to release all of the Palestinian prisoners demanded by Hamas, but that a deal is currently being held up because Israel will not free 48 convicted Israeli Arab terrorists.
Israeli analysts said they believe Hamas wants to quickly conclude a prisoner swap before Palestinian national elections in order to boost the group's popularity and show that it is capable of bringing home Palestinian prisoners via its violent methods, while the Palestinian Authority is incapable of achieving the same results via negotiations. Admiration for Hamas' terrorist successes during the most recent "intifada" won the group a majority in the Palestinian parliament when the last elections were held in 2006.
The al-Sharq al-Awsat report also cited a senior Israeli defense official who said that Israel knows exactly where Shalit is being held in Gaza and is monitoring the location 24 hours a day. However, according to the official, Israel does not dare launch a military operation to free Shalit for fear he would be killed during the action, bringing a tragic end to the years of hoping and waiting.
The official said that Hamas is aware that Israel knows where Shalit is, and is capable of attacking the location, which is probably also contributing to the group's sudden readiness to get serious about a prisoner exchange deal.