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Bike, radio gave Israeli held in Gaza some reprieve
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Gilad Shalit's captors provided him with a stationary bicycle, a radio and paper on which to draw and chronicle his captivity, according to officials who disclosed on Sunday preliminary details of the freed Israeli soldier's ordeal.
Repatriated from Gaza last month in a German- and Egyptian-mediated prisoner swap, the gaunt Shalit said at the time that being kept incommunicado had been hard but hearing news of Israel's efforts to recover him had buoyed his spirits.
Hamas, the Islamist group that led Shalit's cross-border abduction in 2006, has said it treated him well, an account largely dovetailing with that of two non-Palestinian officials briefed on the 25-year-old ex-conscript's case.
"They (Hamas) had a vested interest in keeping him in good shape, so they did what they could, providing him with a stationary exercise bike and a range of food," said one official, who would not be identified by name or nationality.
Shalit's decrepitude, officials said, was due to depression from his five years of isolation, lack of sunlight and shrapnel wounds from his capture that received only superficial treatment to fend off infection. He underwent surgery in Israel last week.
By agreement with Shalit's family, Israeli media have kept a respectful distance and military debriefers have set a slow pace to their visits while the former hostage recuperates.
A spokeswoman for Israel's armed forces declined to discuss the conditions of Shalit's captivity, citing privacy concerns.
His father, Noam, said after the October 18 swap that Shalit had endured "difficult experiences," but did not elaborate.
Asked whether this referred to deliberate physical abuse, the officials briefed on Shalit's case said it was too early to know. "He gave relatively little information after his release, and the fuller debriefings will take time," said one official.
Another was doubtful that Hamas would have endangered Shalit's life with torture, especially if the motivation was malice: "As for a interrogation -- why? What useful information could someone that junior, an Israeli tank crewman, have for them?"
In 2009, Hamas released a proof-of-life videotape of Shalit. Another film was made later but never published, the officials said. His captors supplied him with paper on which to draw and keep a journal, as well as a radio with which Shalit monitored broadcasts from Israel, where he was a cause celebre.
According to both Shalit and Hamas, he also had access to a television, though this might have been later on in his captivity as the Palestinians improved his conditions in anticipation of the deal freeing 1,027 of their jailed compatriots by Israel.
"The media campaigns by his family, the vigils outside the government buildings, even the songs aired about him all proved their worth -- at least, in terms of letting Shalit feel he was not being forgotten," one official said.
Shalit found another diversion in building up an understanding of Arabic from observing conversations between his captors, though they generally spoke to him in Hebrew.
"They ate with him and they also played with him," Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters last week. "They interacted with him in order to keep his mental condition good."
According to another official, Shalit reported being able to overhear, from his cell, women and children nearby. That suggests Hamas kept him in a residential area -- something likely to vex the Israelis, whose security services admitted failing to locate the soldier for a possible rescue attempt.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Sophie Hares)
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