updated 1/17/2008 5:21:27 PM ET 2008-01-17T22:21:27

The father of an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip said Thursday that he sent a letter of condolence to the territory's Hamas strongman after the Palestinian's son was killed in an Israeli raid.

Mahmoud Zahar confirmed to Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper that he had received the letter from Noam Schalit. Islamic militants affiliated with Hamas captured Cpl. Gilad Schalit in June 2006 in a cross-border raid and are still holding him, Israel says.

"It was a personal letter of condolences," Schalit said Thursday. He said he did not appeal to Zahar to help free 21-year-old Gilad but declined to disclose the text of the letter.

Zahar's 24-year-old son, Hussam, a Hamas militant, was one of 19 Palestinians killed Tuesday in an Israeli operation against Gaza rocket squads. Scenes of Zahar weeping as he kissed his dead son's forehead were shown on Israeli TV Tuesday.

"Our hearts break when our sons are killed, but we don't have any other choice," Zahar told Yediot. "It hurts, but we have a homeland and holy sites that are more important than them."

Zahar's eldest son, Khaled, also was killed by Israel, in a failed assassination attempt on the Hamas leader in 2003.

Suicide bombings, Gaza and Hamas
Zahar heads Hamas' military wing, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings in recent years. He is widely believed to have masterminded Hamas' bloody June takeover of Gaza.

Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman, suggested Thursday that Schalit had not been maltreated by his captors.

"Islam instructs us to treat war prisoners well, to keep them safe and not to harm them," Taha said. But he cautioned that the Israeli operations in Gaza could drag Schalit's captivity out for years.

Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, said from Damascus on Wednesday that the military action in Gaza on Tuesday would hurt chances that Hamas would release Schalit.

Israeli defense officials also said they thought the high Palestinian death toll and the killing of Zahar's son dealt a serious blow to efforts to work out a deal for Schalit's freedom in exchange for Palestinian prisoners Israel holds.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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