GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas released an animated film Sunday bearing a grisly message for Israel: If it doesn't meet the Islamic militant group's demands, an Israeli soldier it has held for nearly four years could return home in a coffin.
The short but sophisticated cartoon — which depicts Sgt. Gilad Schalit's aging father wandering empty streets with a picture of his son and ends with the words "There is still hope" — is the latest product of Hamas' growing media machine.
TV and radio stations controlled by the group continuously broadcast Hamas-produced songs and music videos threatening the Jewish state and rallying the group's militant Islamic base.
But the latest cartoon — which was widely broadcast on Israeli TV — was remarkable for the personal and callous nature of the appeal on an issue that has profound emotional resonance for many Israelis: The fate of Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006.
The website of Hamas' armed wing, which posted the video, said it was intended to pressure Israelis to accept demands for a prisoner swap and warns the Israeli government it could regret not making a deal quickly.
Schalit's father, who has become a recognizable face in Israel, is the main character of the three-minute, 20-second short, in Hebrew with English and Arabic subtitles. Noam Schalit is normally clean-shaven, but he appears in the film's later scenes with a cane and scraggly gray beard, suggesting he has grown old while awaiting his son's release.
The elder Schalit passes billboards on which Israeli leaders vow to free his son or get information on his fate. He reads a newspaper ad offering $50 million for information on his son's whereabouts, then tosses it in the trash.
The soundtrack includes clips of his son's voice taken from a Hamas video released last October to prove the soldier was still alive. That video came amid talks aimed at trading Schalit for about 1,000 Palestinians prisoners. Negotiations have since stalled.
Toward the end of the film, screen text in Hebrew and Arabic informs viewers that the Israeli government's efforts to clinch a prisoner swap deal succeeded. Noam Schalit sits near Israel's Erez border crossing with Gaza, where a black van unloads a coffin draped in an Israeli flag.
The father screams, then wakes up, finding himself sitting at a bus stop. A screen text reads: "There is still hope."
Noam Schalit called the film "psychological warfare" and urged Hamas to reach a deal with Israel in order to ease an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has made life hard for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
"Hamas leaders would do better if instead of producing films and performances, they would worry about the real interests of the Palestinian prisoners and the ordinary citizens of Gaza who have been held hostage by their leaders for a long time," he said in a statement.
Hamas has placed considerable emphasis on expanding its media machine since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, ousting forces loyal to its Western-backed rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Last year, the group released its first feature film, an action-packed homage to a top militant.
Hamas also has produced cartoons before, including a jihad-loving mouse for a children's show. Last year, a short cartoon showed Schalit strapped to a chair, pleading with a Palestinian boy to set him free. The boy refused, saying he had relatives in Israeli prisons.
Nashat al-Aqtash, media professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said Hamas has invested in media production as an easy way to spread its ideology — a tactic also used by other militant groups.
Cheaper technology has made it easier to produce animated films, which can be widely distributed on the Internet while keeping their creators' identities secret, al-Aqtash said.
Hamas declined to say who made Sunday's film.
Israelis criticized the film for exploiting the Schalit family's pain. The family's plight has struck a chord with Jewish Israelis, most of whom perform mandatory military service and feel the same could have happened to anyone's son.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the film demonstrated Hamas' "terrorist and cruel character."
Others noted that the video was released just two days after Israel permitted the daughter of Hamas' top security official in Gaza to pass though Israel on her way to seek urgent medical treatment in Jordan.
The daughter of Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad left Gaza on Friday for an Israeli hospital, where she was airlifted to Jordan, Israeli and Jordanian officials said Sunday.
Jordanian officials declined to discuss Elham Fathi Hamad's treatment but said Jordan's King Abdullah II personally appealed to Israel so the woman, who is in her 20s, could make the rare medical trip through Israel.
Hamad once headed the armed wing of Hamas that released the Schalit video. He now oversees all of Hamas' security forces.
Nir Hefez, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the video's timing "attests, more than anything, to the character of this terrorist organization."
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Associated Press Writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Rizek Abdel Jawad in Gaza City and Jamal Halaby in Amman contributed to this report.