A Nation’s Joy and Fear in the Face of A Soldier’s Return Home After Over 5 Years in Captivity

“He who saves one soul, it is as though he saved an entire world.” – The Talmud

Every Israeli knows the name Gilad Shalit.  He has been mentioned at every graduation, every concert, and every public gathering since June 2006.  His image and name are emblazoned on T-shirts, walls, posters, and monuments.  His story has moved a nation.

On June 25, 2006, Hamas militants abducted Gilad during a cross-border raid.  He was 19 years old at the time.  Gilad has since been held captive somewhere in the Gaza Strip, denied all human rights due to captured soldiers, including visits from the Red Cross and communication with family members.

More than five years after Gilad’s abduction, an agreement has been reached between the Israeli government and Hamas for his release.  The deal holds that 1,027 Palestinian prisoners will be released in phases in exchange for Gilad’s liberation.  Among the prisoners being released are 280 who were serving life sentences, many as a result of their roles in terrorist attacks.  Still other prisoners set to be released are amongst the founders of Hamas’s military wing.

From my understanding, the majority of the Israeli and Jewish population, in Israel and abroad, support the deal.  Many would have supported any deal that would have returned Gilad home.  Others, notably those whose families have been torn apart by the Palestinian terrorists set to be released, oppose the agreement.

The arguments supporting the agreement are numerous and complex, stemming from a mentality inherent to Israelis.  Over the course of the five and a half years of Gilad’s imprisonment, the young soldier has become a national icon.  He is not just son to his parents and brother to his siblings, but he is part of every Israeli family.  In a country where all Jewish youths are enlisted in the army at age 18 (barring those who opt out for various health or religious reasons), he is perceived by every mother and father as a son, by every boy and girl as a brother, and by every youth as a fellow soldier protecting his homeland.  There isn’t an Israeli soul who doesn’t want Gilad Shalit to return home.

Yet while everyone wants Gilad to be freed, there are those who believe his homecoming shouldn’t come at such a great price.  Some of the arguments against the agreement include:

  • Israel should not negotiate with terrorists.
  • Israel should not release incarcerated Palestinian killers.
  • The release of known terrorists is a security risk.  Statistics show that 60% of released prisoners return to terrorist activity.
  • Such negotiations set a precedent that provides terrorists with a greater incentive to capture additional Israeli soldiers in the interest of obtaining the release of Palestinian prisoners.

I am sure there are many more, but these seem to be the most cited reasons.

In discussing the issue of whether the return of a captive soldier is worth the release of hundreds of cold-blooded, murderous terrorists, a particular statement in favor of the exchange stood out at me.

The imprisonment of Palestinian terrorists will not bring back the dead.  But their release can bring back the living.

It is partly the high price Israel is paying in exchange for Gilad’s release that has affirmed for many the fact that he is alive.  Historically, Israel has exchanged prisoners for bodies of killed soldiers.  In January of 2004, an agreement between the Israeli government and Hezbollah entailed the return of the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, captured during an attack in October 2000, in exchange for the release of approximately 500 Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab prisoners.  After the Second Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah agreed that Israel would return 5 Lebanese militants and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Unfortunately, as Gilad’s grandfather pointed out, no one knows what Gilad is being returned to Israel.  The Gilad once known by family and friends may no longer exist after over five years of imprisonment.

From my perspective, the most problematic element of the exchange is the precedent it will set.  Terrorists have a clear incentive to kidnap Israeli soldiers.  One terrorist has already said that they must kidnap another five Israeli soldiers to free the remaining five thousand imprisoned terrorists.  Unfortunately but thankfully, they have reason to keep Israeli soldiers alive as well, in the interest of having a stronger bargaining chip.  The ends to which Israel would go to bring home a soldier, whether alive or dead, are unparalleled.  All we can do at this critical moment is hope the exchange proceeds smoothly and that no additional soldiers or families must endure what Gilad Shalit and his relatives suffered.

Note: “Gilad” means “eternal joy,” “monument,” and “hill of testimony.” 


One thought on “A Nation’s Joy and Fear in the Face of A Soldier’s Return Home After Over 5 Years in Captivity

  1. As a mother, I rejoice at the return of Gilad, and, as a citizen of the world, I continue to worry about the Middle East and wish for peace in our times. I wish for this several times every day in hopes that I can become the 100th monkey. Thank you for this thoughtful explanation, Taly.

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