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Israel Agrees to Palestinian Prisoner Release in Exchange for Soldier Videotape

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Israel says it has agreed to release 20 Palestinian women from its prisons in exchange for a videotape of an Israeli soldier who was captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid three years ago and taken to the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militants abducted Gilad Shalit while on he was on patrol in 2006 and took him into the Gaza Strip. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid.

Since then, militants have refused the Red Cross access to Shalit and there has been almost no information about his condition.

Public pressure has grown in Israel for the return of the thin, bespectacled soldier who was 19 at the time of his capture. His case has touched Israelis, creating a huge appetite for any news about him.

That public pressure appeared to pay off Wednesday, when Israel's security cabinet announced it will release 20 Palestinian women security prisoners and detainees. The release will be in exchange for a recently recorded videotape showing that Shalit is alive.

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Israel's President Shimon Peres, speaking on Israeli radio, indicated a deal for the young soldier's release is probably a long way off.

"It's an important step but only a single step," said Shimon Peres. "The road for his liberation is still a long one and a complicated one."

Hamas - the militant Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip - confirmed the deal, which was brokered by German and Egyptian mediators.

A Hamas spokesman known as Abu Obeida told reporters in Gaza his group will continue to insist on the release of hundreds of higher-level Palestinian prisoners before it considers freeing Shalit. He called the agreed exchange a simple deal that he hopes will be a precursor to a comprehensive agreement.

The Hamas official said that with the help of Egyptian and German mediators, a deal had been struck to release the 20 Palestinian women held in what he described as Zionist prisons, in the coming days.

Israel says the women, who Hamas says are of various Palestinian factions, are to be released on Friday.

A list of names posted on Wednesday shows none of the women to be freed were being held for murder offenses and some are nearing the end of their sentences.