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(photo credit: AP)
His skin was pale. His black hair was cropped short. He sat on a white chair against a white background, held a copy of a newspaper published in Gaza and pleaded for freedom.
In a clear voice, the 23-year-old read from a prepared text that was covered from view by the paper.
"Hello, I am Gilad, son of Noam and Aviva Schalit, brother of Hadas and Yoel," he said.
The two-minute video in which he told his family that he loved them and asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to free him, was given to Gilad's parents on Friday afternoon as they sat in their Mitzpe Hilla home in the Upper Galilee.
It was their first sight of their son's face since he was kidnapped, at age 19, while patrolling the Gaza border on June 25, 2006. Since then the family has received three letters and an audio tape from Gilad.
In a move that is seen as a first step toward a deal to free Schalit, Hamas agreed to give Israel the video, taped on September 14, in exchange for 20 female security prisoners held by Israel. On Friday, 19 women were released to the West Bank and one to Gaza. The 20th will be sent home on Sunday.
Egyptian and German mediators brokered Friday's deal with Hamas, which holds Schalit captive in Gaza.
On Friday, Israeli mediator Hagai Hadas watched the video in Tel Aviv, to determine its authenticity, before ordering the Palestinian women released.
The video was then transferred to Jerusalem, where the prime minister viewed it.
A copy of the disc was delivered by helicopter to the Schalit family. They later agreed to make the video public. It was broadcast on Israeli television stations and Internet sites. It is also posted on YouTube.
Aviva Schalit, the kidnapped tank gunner's mother, said she hoped the video was a positive sign.
"I hope that [releasing] the videotape of Gilad is the beginning of the end," she told family friends.
Her husband, Noam, was more cautious, saying he worried that the negotiations could still drag out for years.
"We're not on the brink of a deal," he told reporters outside the Schalit home.
On Friday night, he called on the government to continue intensive negotiations until Gilad is free.
"Aviva and I and all of the Schalit family thank the negotiating team headed by Hagai Hadas for bringing us an authentic, updated sign of life from Gilad for the first time after more than three years in captivity. We thank the activists and public for their support and expect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to bring about our son's release," Noam said in a statement to the press several hours after the video clip was aired.
Gilad's father went on to stress that after watching the captive soldier in the video, the family was worried by his appearance.
"On the face of it he appears to be well, but he has been suffering almost 1,200 unbearable days and nights in Hamas captivity, paying the full price for the failed conduct and policies of recent years," he said.
While the two-minute clip was "an important step," Noam said, the family expects the intense negotiations to continue until Gilad returns home.
"The government and leaders have had plenty of time to look into all the alternative methods that could bring about Gilad's release," he said. "We await his return home in the very near future."
Shimshon Liebman, a family friend who heads the Campaign to Free Gilad Schalit, said the video showed that Gilad was alive, and that knowing that was helpful to his family and friends.
"What is most important is that he is more or less healthy," said Liebman, but he added there was reason for concern. "We can see that he is thin and pale. He does not see the light of day."
Every day that passes, something can happen to him, Leibman said.
The Campaign plans to continue to fight for Gilad's release under the slogan, "Bibi, you can do it, finish the job."
On Monday, several hundred teenagers who will soon be of draft age plan to march around Jerusalem, before heading to the protest tent for Gilad that is permanently set up outside the Prime Minister's Residence. They will meet there with Noam Schalit.
In the West Bank on Friday, jubilant Palestinians cheered and waved flags as the freed women returned home, some with prison-born babies in tow.
The ex-prisoners, wearing the head scarves of devout Muslim women, blew kisses to the crowd through the vehicles' open windows.
Later, they were greeted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his walled Ramallah 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, one-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.
In Gaza City, Fatima Ziq, 41, returned to her home 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."
The Palestinians want Israel to trade up to 1,000 security prisoners for Schalit, including many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis. More than 9,000 Palestinians are jailed in Israel.
Dov Weissglas, once a senior aide to 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," Weissglas said.
Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.
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