Captured Israeli Soldier's Family Awaits His Return

It's been two years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured on the border with Gaza. Shalit's parents say the government isn't doing enough to get their son released. It's hoped the Shalit will be freed during a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Hamas militants who control Gaza.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was two years ago this week that Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip slipped across the border into Israel. There, they captured a 19-year-old Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit. Ever since, Shalit has been held at a secret location in Gaza. Egypt has been trying to mediate a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, the radical Islamic group that controls Gaza.

Last week, Israel and Hamas announced a cease-fire, but Shalit's family says the Israeli government isn't doing enough. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: At a rally to mark two years since his son's capture, Noam Shalit had harsh words for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Mr. NOAM SHALIT: (Through translator) Gilad is being held alone, in a nightmare of continuing darkness, cut off from all contact with the outside world. You sent him there, and it's your obligation to bring him back. Decision time has come. It's now or never.

GRADSTEIN: Earlier this week, the elder Shalit appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to block the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza until Gilad is released. The court denied the petition, but urged the government to hold a special meeting on Shalit.

A senior Israeli military official returns to Egypt this week to resume indirect negotiations with Hamas on a prisoner exchange. Media reports say that in the first stage, Israel will free 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit's freedom. Later, Israel will free another 550 prisoners.

Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar says Hamas is ready for a deal, but he accuses Israel of dragging its feet.

Mr. MAHMOUD AL-ZAHAR (Leader, Hamas): We already agreed upon 1,450 should be released when Shalit went to his home. But the Israeli are not ready, up to this moment, to take a very, very important step. They are describing some of our people as they have blood on their hands. All the Palestinian people, we address them, should be released. Otherwise, there will be no deal.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say the problem is with the list of names. A senior Israeli official said Hamas is demanding the release of prisoners who are responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis.

Since Gilad was captured, his family has received at least two letters and an audiotape from their son. In the letter they received a few weeks ago, Gilad wrote that his health is declining, and he needs medical attention. He urged the Israeli government to do more to gain his freedom.

Noam Shalit says his son may be running out of time.

Mr. SHALIT: (Through translator) Gilad's life is in danger, and if you keep dithering, there may not be anyone to bring back.

GRADSTEIN: When Gilad Shalit was 11, he wrote a children's book called "When the Shark and the Fish First Met." The story is about overcoming prejudice and mistrust. To mark the second anniversary of his capture, the Israeli consulate in New York made a video of children reading the story aloud and put it on YouTube.

(Soundbite of YouTube Video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child #1: A small and gentle fish was swimming in the middle of a peaceful ocean.

Unidentified Child #2: All of a sudden, the fish saw a shark that wanted to devour him.

GRADSTEIN: The story has a happy ending. The shark and the fish learn to get along. Shalit's parents hope that Gilad's real-life story will also have a happy ending. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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