Hamas on Monday released a recorded message from captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the first sign of life from the young serviceman since he was abducted exactly one year ago.
In the message, posted on a Hamas website, Shalit sent greetings to his family and said his health was deteriorating. He also expressed disappointment in the "lack of interest" of the Israeli government in his fate.
"Mother and father, my sister and brother, my friends in the Israel Defense Forces. I greet you from prison and miss you all," he said.
"I have spent a full year in prison, and my health is still deteriorating, and I need a prolonged hospitalization. I regret the lack of interest on the part of the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces in my case and their refusal to meet the demands of the al-Qassam brigades," he added.
Shalit was captured on June 25, 2006, by gunmen from Hamas and two allied groups who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Negotiations for his release, mediated by Egypt, have repeatedly broken down and been complicated since Hamas took control of Gaza two weeks ago.
In the tape, Shalit called on the Israeli government to meet Palestinian demands for a large-scale prisoner swap. "Just as I have parents, a mother and father, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners have mothers and fathers to whom their sons must be returned," he said.
"I have a great hope from my government that it show more interest in me and meet the demands of the mujahideen (captors)."
Before Monday, Shalit, 20, had not been seen or heard from since he was captured, though there have been reports that a letter was sent to his family. The website did not say when the tape was made. But the recording - accompanied by a photo of Shalit and footage of Hamas gunmen and images of last year's attack - appeared to be authentic.
The recording also was played on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV station in Gaza.
Shalit's father, Noam, listened to the tape on Channel 2 television, asking the station to play it a second time for the soldier's mother to hear. He said it appeared that the statement was coerced.
"I imagine that it's the same as the letter they dictated to him and doesn't reflect his real state," he said. "We want somebody independent to see him, to examine him and the conditions under which he is held, his medical condition of course and his mental (state)."
Earlier Monday, the militants holding Shalit said he was in good health and being treated well. "Shalit is alive and in very good shape," Said Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Hamas-allied Popular Resistance Committees.
"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."
Abu Mujahid said Shalit "doesn't need anything" and is receiving the "best treatment." The gunmen called for Shalit's family to put pressure on the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for freeing Shalit.
Noam Shalit (L) with Gilad (Reproduction photo)
Shalit's father said Sunday at a rally that the government was not doing enough to bring him home.
If Israel wants Shalit freed, the government should agree to release Palestinian prisoners who are women, children, elderly, sick, leaders of factions and people serving long sentences, Abu Mujahid said.
Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap in principle, but balked at some of the Palestinian demands for the number and type of prisoners to be freed.
Meanwhile, the Israeli human rights group B'tselem accused the gunmen holding Shalit of war crimes.
"International humanitarian law absolutely prohibits taking and holding a person by force in order to compel the enemy to meet certain demands, while threatening to harm or kill the person if the demands are not met," the group said. "Furthermore, hostage-taking is considered a war crime."
Hamas is responsible for securing Shalit's release since it effectively controls the security situation in Gaza, B'tselem said. The gunmen holding the soldier have violated international law further by not allowing Red Cross representatives to visit him, the group said.
Abu Mujahid shirked off the accusations, saying Shalit was captured inside a tank that was used to fight Palestinians. "Any occupiers on the land are a legitimate target because they are soldiers," Abu Mujahid said.