Following the capture on Sunday of Corporal Gilad Shalit, groups affiliated to the armed wing of Fatah have sent several statements to the media claiming the abduction of other Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

The first case turned out to be a civilian who was briefly unaccounted for after dying of a stroke and whose identity was broadcast by the Israeli press.

The other "captured soldier" was in fact a 24-year-old Israeli civilian whom the Israeli authorities later confirmed was on holiday outside the country. He had to call home to his parents to reassure them.
 
"This so-called kidnapping is part of a psychological war against Israel," police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said on Saturday.

Impact

Palestinians are well aware of the impact of such operations on Israeli public opinion.

"We are very happy the soldier was kidnapped," says Muhammad, a Palestinian from Gaza.

"It is better than killing a settler or destroying a tank, because the Jewish army is by far the strongest, so we are touching their pride," said the 26-year-old, who works for an Islamic charity that distributes humanitarian relief across the Gaza Strip.

"It's the only thing that hurts them, and the Palestinians can achieve a lot through kidnappings."

On Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, whose Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia commands great prestige among Palestinians, also stressed during a Beirut rally that abductions were a vital weapon.

"There are 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails and there is no other way to free them... Releasing the soldier would seal the fate of the prisoners," the Shia cleric said.

The Israeli government has launched a massive operation against the Gaza Strip in a bid to free the soldier, whose picture has been flashed on every newscast since Sunday. His plight has captured the attention of the country.

Rescue

"The militants know that in Jewish tradition, the state should rescue any kidnapped Israeli. It's a feature of our society: every Jew must be retrieved," said Meir Pail, an Israeli military historian.

"Everybody in Israel is focusing on the fate of one kidnapped soldier - nobody thinks about political solutions"

Meir Pail, 
Israeli military historian

Decades ago, Israel maintained a tough no-compromise line with hostage-takers. All nine previous cases of soldiers being snatched have ended in their deaths.

In recent years, however, Israel has softened its stance and struck deals.

In 2004, Israel agreed to swap 429 Palestinian and Lebanese  prisoners for one Israeli prisoner and three bodies held by Hezbollah.

Mediocre thinking

Pail played down the gains for Palestinians of such abductions, which he said ultimately were another manifestation of the lack of political vision on both sides.

"Kidnappings are profitable for Palestinian groups in the short term. They consider it the weak spot of Israel, but I think it is also Israel's strength to deploy maximum efforts to retrieve one of its own," he said.

"But while we are very good at activating our military, mediocre political thinking has meant that Israel has no policy vis-a-vis the Arab world," he added.

"Everybody in Israel is focusing on the fate of one kidnapped soldier - nobody thinks about political solutions."