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(photo credit: AP)
The decision to swap a videotape of captive IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit for 20 Palestinian female prisoners held by Israel is the first phase of a prisoner exchange agreement, Hamas said on Wednesday.
Hamas also boasted that Israel had "finally succumbed" to the demands of Schalit's captors.
In Jerusalem, the security cabinet on Wednesday approved the release of the 20 prisoners and detainees in exchange for an up-to-date videotape of Schalit, in what could be the first concrete move toward freeing the soldier since he was kidnapped over three years ago.
This will be the first release of Palestinian prisoners since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office on March 31, and those to be released - according to government sources - were the type of prisoners generally released as goodwill gestures for Ramadan and various Muslim holidays.
Unlike in years past, this year Israel did not release any prisoners for Ramadan.
The decision to release the Palestinians came at the recommendation of the team working for Schalit's release, headed by Hagai Hadas, and was unanimously approved by the 15-member security cabinet.
The release of the Palestinians, and receipt of the tape, are scheduled to take place on Friday.
According to a suggestion that came from the German mediating team headed by Ernst Urlau, working together with the Egyptians, Israel will get "updated and unequivocal proof" of the well-being and status of Schalit in the form of a videotape filmed in the last few weeks. A Hamas Web site reported that the video was about a minute long.
Netanyahu congratulated Hadas and his team for their "professional work" away from the spotlight, and said, "It is important that the whole world will know that Gilad Schalit is alive and well, and that Hamas is responsible for his fate and well-being."
A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said the cabinet decided to respond positively to this initiative as a "confidence-building measure within the framework of the indirect negotiations" with Hamas over Schalit.
The statement said the move came "ahead of the decisive stages in the negotiations for Gilad Schalit's release and on the basis of the government of Israel's determination to bring him back home quickly while upholding Israel's vital interests."
The names of the Palestinians to be released were posted Wednesday afternoon on the Israel Prisons Service's Web site. A statement on the Web site said the list of prisoners was examined by legal and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) authorities and that the prisoners had been "found suitable for release from the aspect of their danger to the public and the charges against them."
Nineteen of the 20 prisoners are from Judea and Samaria, and only one is from Gaza. The vast majority had already served two-thirds of their sentence and were scheduled to be released within the next two years.
None of the women were directly involved in the killing of Israelis, although a few were indirectly involved. A number of others were arrested for offenses such as carrying knives.
A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said Hadas was in constant contact with the Schalit family, and that they were informed of the developments.
"The negotiations are still expected to be long and hard," the source said, "and we will continue to take concrete steps to bring Gilad home as quickly as possible."
The sources cautioned that this development did not mean the sides were on the cusp of an agreement, but that this was part of a larger agreement that was still a long way off.
Urlau has had experience with this type of move in the past. In late 2003, to get a "sign of life," he visited kidnapped Israeli Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was being held by Hizbullah in Lebanon, in exchange for the return of two Hizbullah bodies.
Three months later, Tannenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed along the Lebanese border were returned in exchange for 435 prisoners.
Once the names of the Palestinian female prisoners were placed on the Internet Wednesday afternoon, the public - as was the case in similar prisoner releases in the past - was given 48 hours to appeal their release. After that period, the prisoners could be released once Urlau hands the tape over to Israel.
Urlau has already seen the video.
If a final deal is agreed upon for Schalit's release, these 20 prisoners will come off the final number of prisoners that the Palestinians are demanding in exchange. It is not clear whether these names were on the list of prisoners that was originally drawn up by Hamas.
Vice premier and security cabinet member Silvan Shalom said the decision to free the prisoners was "not simple."
But, he said, it was important to keep in mind that the move was an "important step toward the overall deal."
At the same time, Shalom added, a vote in favor of this release did not automatically ensure a vote in favor of an overall deal if one is reached.
"I voted in favor today, but there is no doubt that before the overall deal we will need to think again. That decision is likely to set criteria for situations that might, God forbid, occur in the future."
Another member of the security cabinet, Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, welcomed the decision, saying that first and foremost it gave hope to the Schalit family.
"We will continue all efforts to bring about a breakthrough," he said. "This government is doing everything possible so that we not only get a sign of life, but also bring him safely home."
Palestinians said that a prisoner swap was likely to boost Hamas's popularity at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.
"The fact that the Palestinian resistance managed to hold on to the soldier for three years is a major achievement," said Ahmed al-Bahr, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. "For the past few years, Israel had recruited its military and intelligence machine to locate the solider, but to no avail."
Calling on Israel to accept all the demands of the captors, Bahr praised Egyptian and German mediators who helped strike the deal.
He added that the agreement over the release of the 20 inmates in return for a videotape of Schalit "proved that the path of resistance was the only option to restore Palestinian rights."
Osama al-Mazini, the Hamas official in charge of the "Schalit Portfolio," credited Germany for reaching the agreement. However, he cautioned against "excessive optimism," saying there were still some obstacles that needed to be overcome before reaching a comprehensive agreement.
Mazini did not elaborate on the nature of the obstacles, but he said that despite the role Egypt had played in the mediation efforts, the breakthrough was achieved only following the intervention of the Germans.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri pointed out that Schalit's captors had demanded the release of prisoners belonging to various Palestinian groups and not only to Hamas. He said that the captors had also insisted that the prisoners be from both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The Palestinian resistance groups that are holding the soldier consider all prisoners to be members of one people and one homeland," Abu Zuhri explained. "We reject any attempt to discriminate between the prisoners on the basis of their geographic location or political affiliation."
He said that the current deal demonstrated Hamas's "moral, religious and national obligation to end the case of the prisoners in Israeli jails."
He added that Hamas's decision to give priority to the women in the prisoner swap reflected the movement's appreciation for the role these women have played in the struggle against Israel.
The Hamas official said that his movement wanted to pursue indirect negotiations with Israel on a daily basis to reach an agreement over the case of Schalit.
Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip and Syria hailed the agreement as a huge achievement for their military wing, Izaddin Kassam.
Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political analyst closely affiliated with Hamas, heaped praise on Schalit's captors for succeeding in hiding him for over three years. He said that the performance of Izaddin Kassam was "professional and secretive."