Families of Captives Fear 3 Men Will Be Forgotten

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A01

KIRYAT MOTZKIN, Israel, July 19 -- Everywhere in the cluttered, third-floor apartment he has shared with his father in this suburb of Haifa, there are reminders of Eldad Regev.

A dog-eared travel guide from a recent trip to Thailand. An army sticker on the wall above his still-unmade bed: "Reserves, the best friends you have." And an album of childhood photos the family compiled in recent days, while they wondered if they'd ever see him again.

"I think of Eldad hundreds of times every day," Beni Regev, 35, said of his brother, an Israeli soldier taken captive by Hezbollah fighters near the Lebanese border on July 12. "He is with us in our thoughts, constantly."

It was the capture of Regev, 26, and platoon-mate Ehud Goldwasser, 31 -- and the seizure of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, near the Gaza Strip last month -- that touched off the wide new war raging in the Middle East. As the days have passed, the men's families have grown concerned that the increasing focus on geopolitics and the destruction of Hezbollah has overshadowed the plight of their loved ones, they said in interviews Tuesday.

After keeping a relatively low public profile, they have made impassioned pleas for information and for the government to negotiate with the captors.

"I don't want to get too much into politics, but people need to remember the reason all this began," said Ofer Regev, 34, another brother of Eldad, referring to Hezbollah's seizure of the soldiers. "It is a moral question, and yet, where is the international community? They are not doing enough."

"I want to believe what they say, that he is the main concern. I want to," said Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Ehud Goldwasser, slipping frequently into past tense when discussing his son, before correcting himself firmly. "Udi was -- is -- Udi is a very strong person. Mentally strong. So I know he is holding up. But he is a card in this game."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday in his first formal address since the crisis began that the soldiers' release was a precondition for halting the offensive and that he keeps photographs of the three in his office. "Many times during the day I look in their faces, into their eyes, and embrace them in my heart. I do not forget them for one minute," Olmert said.

But the week-long offensive in southern Lebanon has raised concerns among some family members. "It seems that it complicates our situation, as most of the attention is on fighting," said Noam Shalit, father of Gilad, the corporal captured outside Gaza. The father runs a bed-and-breakfast in the manicured hilltop community of Mitzpeh Hila, less than 20 miles from Lebanon.

Beni Regev said he believed the Israeli government and army were doing "everything they possibly can, as they should," to free his brother. But asked whether they should consider a swap for detainees held by Israel, as some Israelis have suggested, he did not hesitate. "Everything should be on the table," he said. "Let's talk."

While not ruling out such an exchange, Olmert appeared to suggest Monday that Israel would make no concessions. "We will do everything and make every effort to bring them home," he said in his speech. "We will do this, but not in a pattern that will encourage more kidnappings."

Eldad Regev's father and brothers described the reservist soldier as laid-back but patriotic, with a wide circle of friends. When they heard that the pre-law student at Bar Ilan University -- called to active duty a month ago -- had been captured when his border patrol was ambushed, his brothers moved back to the apartment where they were raised, transforming it into part listening post, part vigil site.

Like other family members of the three missing men, they said that lack of information is the hardest part.

"It has been a week and we still don't know anything," Beni Regev said. "We still don't even know if they are alive. We are calling on people's humanity to at least give us a sign -- a photo, a phone call, something -- that shows us that Eldad is alive. I think that Hezbollah is playing the worst kind of game with us."

In the apartment, a large supply of bottled water and soda is stacked in one corner, and the television in the living room is permanently tuned to a 24-hour news channel.

His brothers are religious Jews, unlike Eldad, whom they described as more interested in rock music than synagogue. They said they begin each day with the first of three prayer sessions, and have added a special plea to the normal liturgy for their brother to return "safe and soon."

"Everyone is trying to support them, but we all know there is nothing we can really do," said Chaim Tzouri, the mayor of Kiryat Motzkin. "No one knows if Eldad is alive. So what can you tell them that will help?"

A banner above the vestibule of their building reads: "Eldad, we are waiting for you to come home." On the street outside, community members stop by regularly to add their prayers. A military liaison is on hand round-the-clock. And a parade of politicians and commanders come through to offer condolences and pledge their support. Late Tuesday morning, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli military chief of staff, spent 20 minutes with the family.

"He didn't really have anything to tell us," said Beni Regev. "They don't know where he is or how he is."

As he spoke, an air raid siren sounded and the family moved briskly to the stairwell at the center of their building. While no rockets have fallen in their town, the warnings come several times a day, further fraying the family's nerves.

About 15 miles north, along Israel's Mediterranean coast, the family of Ehud Goldwasser had convened in Nahariya, after arriving from across the globe. Ehud's youngest brother was traveling in rural India when he heard, and it took him four days to get home. Shlomo, a retired commercial ship captain, was in South Africa when he saw on CNN that Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped. "When I tried to call his phone and couldn't get through, I just knew," he said.

"I called a rabbi and a doctor and went to tell his mother," Shlomo said. "She reacted like you would expect a mother would. I don't want to say more."

The families said they are in close contact, trading tips on coping and passing on what few scraps of information they can glean. All three homes lie about a half-hour's drive from one another in Israel's north.

"Each family offers the others strength and support," said Yayr Goldwasser, 26, a brother of Ehud. "No one wants to go through this alone."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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