KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank (JTA) — Two days into Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip, Arab media outlets began reporting that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had been wounded in an Israeli airstrike.
While Israeli defense officials dismissed the reports as psychological warfare and manipulation, the report was a reminder that Hamas knows it is holding what the Israeli defense establishment has called a "valuable asset" in its conflict with Israel.
Sgt. Gilad Shalit, now 22, was captured in a cross-border raid near the Kerem Shalom crossing in June 2006. Concern about his fate has galvanized Israelis from across the religious and political spectrum, making the report of his injury in an Israeli raid a powerful tool for Hamas to use against Israel.
The initial report that Shalit was injured was published Dec. 29 on a Hamas-affiliated Web site, according to a Ynet report.
"There are reports that the Zionist soldier held by Hamas was injured in one of the Air Force strikes," the Web site said.
The report quickly spread to other sites. Hamas’ military wing never officially confirmed the report, nor was it independently confirmed.
Shalit’s family reportedly had been warned to expect such reports, likely false, before the Gaza incursion.
Israeli officials believe that Shalit is alive. His family received a letter, promised by Hamas during a meeting with former President Jimmy Carter, from the soldier last June. It was the third letter they had received since his capture. Experts confirmed that the handwriting was Shalit’s.
The Israel Defense Forces reported Monday that at least 100 Hamas terrorists had been taken into custody so far as part of the ground operation in Gaza. It is likely that defense and intelligence officials intend to use the prisoners as bargaining chips in a deal for Shalit’s release.
Hamas has demanded the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, many of whom were involved in terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of Israelis, in exchange for Shalit.
Israeli defense officials had stated before the Gaza operation that the fact that Shalit was being held in an unknown location in Gaza had figured into their plans for the attack. They admitted such an attack could be dangerous for the captive soldier.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged this fear during his address to the Israeli people shortly after the Gaza operation began.
"Today, my heart is also with the Shalit family — Aviva, Noam, the children and grandfather Tzvi — who are certainly anxious this evening, along with very many others, over the fate of Gilad," he said.
Discussion about Shalit has become part of the political landscape in Israel in recent weeks in the run-up to national elections on Feb. 10.
In a talk to Tel Aviv high school students last month, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima Party and its candidate for prime minister, responded to a question about why the teens should risk their lives in service to a country that had not brought Shalit home.
"If you think that I could free Gilad Shalit right now, or the government could, but doesn’t want to, that isn’t true," Livni said. "The government must always be responsible for the soldiers it sends out. We all wish there would be no casualties, but some of the willingness to fight is because we have no other choice. It is not always possible to bring everyone home."
The statement prompted outrage from the leaders of organizations dedicated to bringing Shalit home.