Exactly a year since he was kidnapped, a sign of life was received from Gilad Schalit on Monday, when his voice was heard for the first time in an audiotape released by Hamas. In the message, posted on the Web site of Hamas's military wing, Gilad sent greetings to his family and fellow soldiers, while claiming that his health was deteriorating and that he was in need of "prolonged hospitalization." In it, he also expressed disappointment in the Israeli government's "lack of interest" in his fate.
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"Mom and Dad, brother and sister, my comrades in the IDF - I send to you from jail my regards and my longing for all of you," he said, speaking in Hebrew.
"I've gone through a whole year in jail, and my health is still deteriorating and I'm in need of prolonged hospitalization. I regret the lack of interest shown by the Israeli government and the IDF in my case and their lack of response to the demands of the Islamic Brigades," he added.
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In the tape, Schalit, who is now 20, made reference to the fact that he was kidnapped while serving on the Gaza border as part of his compulsory military service.
He called on the government to meet Palestinian demands for a large-scale prisoner swap, "especially as I was part of a military operation under military orders and I was not a drug dealer."
This statement was interpreted as a reference to Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was abducted by Hizbullah and released as part of a prisoner exchange deal in 2004 and subsequently admitted that he had left Israel for a drug deal.
"Just as I have parents, a mom and dad, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners also have mothers and fathers whose children must be returned to them," he said. "I have great hope that my government will take more interest in me, and respond to the demands of the Mujahedeen (captors)."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi all called Schalit's father, Noam, to update him on the developments concerning his son.
Defense officials said talks were ongoing between Israel and Hamas and were being mediated by the Egyptians. Hamas's demands have not changed and still stand at close to 500 prisoners, many of them murderers responsible for major terror attacks and the deaths of many Israelis.
Defense officials added that it was possible that the release of the tape was intended to serve as a goodwill gesture indicating Hamas's desire to reach a deal and prisoner swap for Schalit.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad told Channel 2 that "we want to reach a deal at the end of the day. If the Israeli side wants, we can renew negotiations for his release."
Later, he told Channel 10 that the release of the tape was a "positive sign that Hamas wants to negotiate a prisoner release."
Standing outside his home in Mitzpeh Hila, wearing the white T-shirt marking the bitter anniversary of his son's kidnapping, Noam said the tape could be a positive sign from Hamas that it wanted to advance the process.
"We hope the tape is 'the real thing', i.e., that Hamas is willing to make progress and this is not just a media spin that Hamas is pushing [in an attempt] to bring [the prime minister and his entourage] from Sharm [e-Sheikh] to Gaza," he said.
"We hope that in light of the new situation in Gaza, Hamas has an interest in proving to the Palestinian people they have achievements," he added.
If so, he said, he expected the government to respond and to conclude a prisoner swap with Hamas that would secure his son's release.
"It's been a year and that is long enough," he said.
He and his wife, Aviva, first heard the tape as they drove with Channel 2 back home from a memorial service for one of the two soldiers killed in the attack on their son's tank.
In a video that was shown on television of that moment, the couple was seen in the back seat of a car. Noam had dark sunglasses over his eyes and Aviva held her hand to her face as she listened.
Except for a letter they received in September, they had not seen or heard from Gilad since his capture.
In a rerun of events from the year before, they returned home to find scores of reporters outside their door waiting to talk with them, just as they had in the first days after Gilad was taken.
When asked his opinion regarding the genuineness of the tape, Noam said "there are several question marks regarding the tape. For example, Gilad says his health is bad while his captors claim all his needs are being supplied and he's in good shape.
"We know almost certainly it is Gilad's voice and completely certainly that the text was dictated to him," he added.
His statement was in reference to television commentators who speculated that Gilad appeared to be reading a text that was written for him, noting the statement was not in typical spoken Hebrew and appeared to be clumsily translated from Arabic.
Noam said he imagined that his son knew how hard his family had been working to release him and that he wanted to see him return as quickly as possible.
"On the face of it, this seems like a good sign," he said, but he noted that in the last year there had been many reports in the media that had made it seem as if Gilad's release were imminent but that in the end nothing had happened.
The Hamas takeover in Gaza, he said, had not caused him any more fear than he had already felt for Gilad's safety every day in the last year. "Everything that happens in Gaza worries us and touches us," he said.
Noam refrained from giving advice to the government, saying only that "what I say to the prime minister I say to him in private."
In the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, where the summit was in progress, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, called the tape a "cruel gimmick" and ruled out negotiations with Hamas. "How cruel can Hamas be?" she asked. "We will not cooperate with Hamas. We will not compromise with Hamas."
An Olmert aide said the Israeli premier asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to continue mediating for the soldier's release.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni denounced Hamas for making what she called "cynical use of the suffering of Gilad Schalit." She said that Hamas was trying to "dictate its own brutal agenda in the region in order to undermine a political process which is taking place right now in order to create a better future for the region," a reference to the summit.
Meanwhile, the human rights group B'tselem accused Schalit's captors of war crimes, noting their refusal to allow Red Cross workers to visit Schalit.
But a member of one of the three Hamas groups linked with the kidnapping said he was well treated.
"His health is good and he's stable. We are treating him according to our religion's instructions on how to deal with war prisoners," said Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees.
Abu Mujahid said Schalit "doesn't need anything" and is receiving the "best treatment." He called for Schalit's family to pressure the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for freeing the soldier.
Abu Mujahid dismissed B'tselem's accusations, saying Schalit was captured in a tank that was used to fight Palestinians.
"Any occupiers on the land are a legitimate target because they are soldiers," Abu Mujahid said. Israel is the one that has committed war crimes by killing Palestinian civilians, he said.
While focus was drawn to the Schalit kidnapping, the families of Ehud Goldwasser, 32, and Eldad Regev, 26, have still not received any sign from the two men since they were kidnapped by Hizbullah on the northern border.
The lack of knowledge with respect to their fate was referenced by Brig.-Gen. Udi Dekel, who is head of the IDF's Strategic Planning Division.
He is also in charge of talks with the Lebanese government and UNIFIL, the international force that now guards the Lebanese border with Israel.
"At every meeting I ask about information about the kidnapped soldiers. Their answer is that this is not the issue of the Lebanese government, because the Lebanese government is not responsible," said Dekel. He spoke Monday at a special program at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
The problem was that Hizbullah does not even want to negotiate, he said. Requests for information or for the Red Cross to visit have been denied, he added.
AP contributed to this report.