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For Israel, soldier's abduction opens old wounds

Written by: Staff
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Jerusalem, Jul 7: Nearly two weeks of uncertainty in Israel over the fate of a soldier abducted to Gaza have been just the blink of an eye for one Israeli father, also awaiting definitive word of his missing-in-action son.

Yona Baumel said he still wakes in the night thinking about his son Zachary, who went missing in a tank battle with the Syrians during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

''It may sound cruel, but if you know that he's dead, you know that he's not suffering. If you know that he's alive, it's a hell of a lot to bear,'' said Baumel.

Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, more than 400 Israeli soldiers have been declared ''missing in action''.

But only a handful are still ''presumed to be alive'', among them Zachary Baumel, airman Ron Arad and now Corporal Gilad Shalit, abducted by Palestinian militants in a June 25 raid in Israel.

Arad, missing since he bailed out of his crippled warplane over Lebanon in 1986, has become a national symbol.

As the latest drama unfolded, Israel ignored a Tuesday deadline set by militants who took Shalit.

Israel has said it will not negotiate for the soldier's release, saying that would encourage more abductions. Israeli officials said they believe he is still alive and that the crisis could last months.

Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist who treats Palestinian victims of violence, said the militants were trying to push Israel's psychological buttons by evoking its trauma over Arad and other long-missing soldiers.

''Their drones are in the sky. Their balloons are taking pictures of everything. And yet the Israelis don't know where he (Shalit) is,'' Sarraj said. ''It's a story of 40 years of oppression and brutality. When you (the Palestinians) score once in a while, you feel a sense of moral victory.''

Gerald Steinberg, director of the programme on conflict resolution at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said of the psychological effects of abductions: ''That kind of uncertainty is more horrifying and brutal than killing, and the Palestinians are aware of that.''

PRISONER SWAPS

Israel has agreed to prisoner swaps in the past. Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon handed over an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers in January 2004 after Israel released more than 420 Arab prisoners.

Even if a deal were possible, Steinberg said a key question was who on the Palestinian side has the power to deliver Shalit. Three groups said they participated in the raid in which he was abducted.

Cameron Brown of Israel's Herzliya Center think tank said a straight prisoner exchange in Shalit's case would not pass muster with Israelis, unless it was part of a broader deal to stop militants from firing rockets at Israel.

Israeli analyst Mark Heller said the argument that Israel had swapped prisoners in the past was not resonating. ''On the contrary, the general sense is that ... it has proved to be a failure and therefore we should not try it,'' he said.

Mustafa al-Sawaf, an expert on Islamist groups, said the kidnappers have three options -- to keep Shalit alive, kill him and bury him, or get him out of Gaza.

Baumel said he knows what the family of the 19-year-old soldier is going through.

''When this first happened, they were thinking in terms of hours. Then, perhaps, they were thinking in terms of days. Now, unfortunately, they're thinking in terms of the long haul,'' Baumel said.

''We've been living with this for over 24 years.''

REUTERS

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