Israel Anguishes Over Captured Soldier

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 27, 2006; 4:54 PM

MITSPEH HILA, Israel -- Giving voice to his nation's anguish, the father of a kidnapped Israeli soldier begged Tuesday for a sign his son is alive.

Speaking on TV from his Galilee home, Noam Shalit asked "to hear his voice and to see his face."

Two days after his capture by Palestinian militants, the fate of Cpl. Gilad Shalit riveted the hearts and minds of Israelis. His face was plastered on newspapers, callers to talk shows prayed for his safety, and Israel threatened to invade Gaza.

A poster-style graphic on two pages of the Yediot Ahronot daily carried the plea "Bring Gilad back," and his abduction was the top item on news broadcasts,

All the soldier's father, Noam Shalit, had to do to speak to the nation _ and the world _ was walk out his front door. TV crews have been camped in his front yard since his son was identified as the missing soldier Sunday.

Shalit, a slim, graying 53-year-old with cobalt blue eyes who runs a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the hills of Lebanon, used foreign TV channels to appeal in English to Gilad's captors to treat him well and set him free.

Talking to The Associated Press on his front porch, Shalit said, "We'd like to get a life sign from Gilad, to hear his voice, and to see his face, and to see he is well."

The father said he was working in his home office when Israeli army officers came to his door. "They said Gilad is missing in action. And then we went to my wife's office, with the officers, and I told her this awful ...," he said, choking, unable to continue.

Now, two days after the raid on the army post, "the main issue, the main fear, the main thing, is uncertainty," he said. Asked how they cope, he replied ruefully, "We don't cope."

Israelis are feeling his pain personally. In an emotional commentary in the Maariv daily, political analyst Ben Caspit wrote: "The life of an Israeli soldier, with a picture, a smile, a hairdo, noble family, is hanging in the balance. A hairbreadth can separate between his life and a region-wide flare-up and a massive Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip."

Lost in the attention over the captive was the fact that two members of his tank crew were killed in the Palestinian attack on the Gaza border crossing. They were buried quietly within a day of the clash.

Israel's concern for captive soldiers has been called its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Soldiers know they won't be left behind in the field, but on the other hand, the emotional outpouring can prompt the government to bend its principle of refusing to negotiate with kidnappers.

The results are sometimes wildly disproportionate.

In January 2004, Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon agreed to exchange one Israeli civilian and the bodies of three abducted soldiers for 400 Palestinians, 23 Lebanese, five Syrians, three Moroccans, three Sudanese, one Libyan and one German. Fifty-nine Lebanese and the remains of Hezbollah guerrillas were included in the deal.

Israel freed 4,765 Palestinian prisoners in 1983 in exchange for six soldiers held by the Fatah movement, then led by Yasser Arafat.

And in 1985, Israel released 1,150 Arab prisoners, almost all of them Palestinians, in exchange for three soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas in 1982. The deal came under harsh criticism at the time, intensifying when the freed prisoners played key roles in a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared publicly that Israel would not negotiate or release Palestinian prisoners, rejecting demands by the Shalit's captors. But Cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, who served for decades in Israel's intelligence services, said anything is possible.

"In the Middle East you have to be able to change your skin, to go from one extreme to the other, from A to Z, within a second," he told Army Radio. "If you are able to do this, you can win. If you can't do this, you should go home."

Watching the tense drama unfold, Yona Baumel felt a special pain. His son Zachary disappeared in a tank battle on the Israel-Syria border in 1982 and has not been found.

News of the latest abduction hit home, said Baumel, 78, of Jerusalem. "It's like when you scratch an old wound when you pull a scab off," he said.

He didn't call the Shalits to offer moral support. "I'm the last person they have to hear from," he said. "Do they have to hear from someone whose son is missing for 25 years?"

© 2006 The Associated Press