Father of captured Israeli soldier condemns cartoon showing his son in a coffin

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The father of an Israeli soldier held by the Islamic group Hamas for nearly four years has condemned a cartoon warning that the soldier may never be returned to his family alive.

Noam Shalit, the father of Corporal Gilad Shalit, said yesterday the cartoon was a form of "psychological warfare" and that Hamas should instead concentrate on easing the suffering of its own people in the Gaza Strip.

Cpl Shalit, 23, was captured by three Islamic groups, including Hamas, in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006 before being whisked into Gaza, where he is held at a secret location. His parents have led a tireless campaign to pressure both Hamas and the Israeli government to secure his release.

The three-minute animated film shows Cpl Shalit's father wandering through deserted streets beneath billboards of successive Israeli leaders promising to free the soldier. Cpl Shalit is eventually returned in a flag-draped coffin just before Mr Shalit awakens from the dream and realises he still has time to save his son.

Warning that Cpl Shalit could face the same fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who went missing more than 20 years ago in Lebanon and is widely believed to have died in captivity, the film concludes with the message: "There is still hope".

Hamas said the cartoon, which first aired on the website of its armed wing, the Qassam Brigade, was designed to reach a wider Israeli audience and break a deadlock in prisoner-exchange talks. Israelis have been transfixed by Cpl Shalit's fate, and many support his release at any price, placing successive administrations under enormous domestic pressure to secure his freedom.

Hamas, which is leading the Palestinian negotiations, is demanding the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in exchange for Cpl Shalit. Israel appeared on the verge of agreeing a deal, brokered by Egyptian and German mediators, last December but refused to release militants it considered beyond the pale. Israeli says that its offer remains on the table, but Hamas has yet formally to respond.

"For everyone's sakes, they [Hamas] should deal with the [German] proposal," Mr Shalit told The Independent. "A thousand prisoners have not been released. They could have been home by now. The ball is in their court."

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the film was a "despicable action".

Hamas has used Cpl Shalit as a valuable bargaining tool to wring concessions out of Israel, which has enforced a crippling blockade of Gaza since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007. Previous Israeli administrations have vowed not to lift the blockade until Cpl Shalit is released.

Israel released 20 female Palestinian prisoners last October in exchange for a video that showed footage of Cpl Shalit in good health. Mr Shalit has repeatedly appealed to Hamas to allow the Red Cross to see his son.