By Dan Williams

Jerusalem - There were no wisecracks when the host of a usually irreverent current affairs show on Israel's Army Radio turned to the abduction of a soldier by gunmen from Gaza.

"When you die, it's not your problem any more," said presenter Avri Gilad. "But when you get kidnapped, it's a predicament so extreme, like dying again and again."

While Israel's government issued ultimatums to the Palestinians to return Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19, who was captured during a deadly cross-border raid on Sunday, many ordinary citizens shied away from tough talk.

Hostage-taking has always posed a dilemma for Israelis, torn between wanting to bring home their kin and not wanting to appear weak by making concessions to their captors.

Some Israelis took comfort from reports that Shalit was alive, though possibly hurt.

But with no direct demands from his captors, Israel's refusal to negotiate with the Hamas Islamist-led Palestinian government and its threats of military action, there were fears for Shalit's safety.

"It's an enormous trauma, and the most difficult thing to deal with is the uncertainty," said Zippora Avitan, whose son Adi was killed and taken away by Hizbollah guerrillas while serving as an Israeli soldier on the Lebanese border in 2000.

Only after three years of negotiations through German mediators did it emerge that Adi Avitan and two other Israeli troops taken by Hizbollah were dead. Their remains were recovered after Israel freed hundreds of Arab prisoners.

In Shalit's case, Israeli officials were quick to rule out a prisoner swap - a move decried by the left-wing opposition.

"We negotiated to recover our soldiers in the past, and we should do so again," said Ran Cohen of the liberal Meretz party.

The last time Palestinians kidnapped an Israeli soldier was in 1994. Corporal Nachson Wachsman, 19, was killed when commandos tried to free him. Ron Arad, an airman missing in Lebanon since 1986, remains a cause celebre despite growing speculation he is dead.

Jewish tradition counsels paying almost any ransom to release hostages.

But in a Jewish state still facing enemies sworn to its destruction, there has long been a counter-argument that negotiating with hostage-takers dents military deterrence.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who championed last year's Israeli withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years of occupation, is under extra pressure to prove that his plan for similar moves in the West Bank will not jeopardise national security.

As if to underscore the sudden sense of vulnerability in the Middle East's mightiest military, Israeli newspapers carried front-page photographs of a slender, bespectacled, shyly smiling Shalit.

The Palestinian raid came just two days after Israeli commandos seized two suspected Hamas militants deep in Gaza.

On the radio show, Gilad said Shalit's capture "trampled on our public pride".

But any such issues were put aside by Shalit's parents, who issued an open letter to the hostage over an Israeli news Web site that is read in Arabic by many Palestinians.

"We know and trust that whoever is holding you also has a family, and knows what we are going through - and will know how to look out for you and your health," they wrote.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesperson of the Hamas-led Palestinian government which does not recognise Israel's right to exist, told radio stations in near-fluent Hebrew that all efforts were under way to resolve the crisis.