Bargaining chip and Israeli icon: who is Gilad Shalit?
As Hamas and Israel negotiate the finer details of his release, why is Gilad Shalit so important?
Hopes are growing that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli Defence Force soldier kidnapped more than three years ago by Hamas militants, may finally be released in the coming days. But who is Shalit, and why is his freedom so important to the Israelis?
Shalit's ordeal began in the early hours of June 25 2006, while he was manning an army post on the Israeli side of the border with the southern Gaza Strip. A group of Palestinian militants, who had crept through a tunnel onto Israeli territory, opened fire. Two members of each side were killed in the ambush, and Shalit, then only 19, reportedly broke his hand when a rocket propelled grenade struck his tank.
Since then, despite a global campaign for his release, Shalit has been kept in captivity in Gaza. There has only been occasional evidence that he is still alive: three handwritten letters; an audio tape in 2007, and, this October, a videotape which showed the 23-year-old looking skinny but healthy. During the recording, he addressed Netanyahu, and spoke fondly of childhood memories. He was filmed holding a copy of a recent newspaper to verify the date.
Israel had to free 20 female Palestinian prisoners just to secure this two-minute long tape. So the price of his release is likely to be much higher; Hamas has previously asked for every Palestinian woman and child held captive by the Israelis to be freed, along with a list of 1,000 male prisoners.
The last Israeli soldier to be taken captive, Sergeant Nachshon Mordechai Wachsman in 1994, was killed in a botched rescue attempt less than a week later. This may explain why the Israeli government, which sends the teenage sons and daughters of its citizens to fight as conscripts against the Palestinians, has been more cautious in the case of Shalit.
Shalit's imprisonment has given rise to an emotional debate as to how far Israeli society should compromise. The vast majority favour giving in to Hamas's demands to secure his release, but others fear this would encourage more raids on Israeli soil, and that, if they were released, many of the Palestinian prisoners would simply take up arms against Israel again. And there is also a philosophical rift behind these practical and emotive concerns - the rift between those who feel that an individual should be sacrificed for the collective good, and those who don't.
The dilemma has only been intensified by international attention: Shalit's father has waged a constant media campaign to keep his son's imprisonment in the news; former US president Jimmy Carter was called in to help with the negotiations; Shalit has been made an honorary citizen of Paris, Rome, Miami and New Orleans in gestures of solidarity. On his 23rd birthday, 'Free Shalit' became the second biggest trend on Twitter.
Meanwhile, over the border, the prized prisoner has become an emblem of Hamas's bloody-minded defiance, and shown the party at its least humane. During one rally, Hamas staged a theatrical procession, in which one of their supporters dressed up as Shalit and was paraded through the streets of Gaza City by militiamen.
And when Israel invaded Gaza in January 2009, the prisoner's status as a bargaining chip became even more delicate. Hamas claimed that Shalit had been injured by Israeli fire, and Abu Marzuk, a senior Hamas politician, told an Arabic newspaper: "We are not interested in his well-being at all, and we are not giving him any special guard since he is as good as a cat or less."
Then in July this year, the Jerusalem Post ran a story which said that Osama Mazini, one of the officials charged with negotiating the soldier's release with Israel, was in the audience of a children's play at a Hamas summer camp. The play featured a re-enactment of Shalit's capture.
Though Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged caution in a statement today, it is thought that Israel is close to finalising lengthy secret negotiations concerning a prisoner swap deal with Hamas.
"I cannot say yet whether a deal will in fact be struck. It is not only up to us. There is hesitancy on the part of the other side as well," Netanyahu, the Likud leader, said. "On the one hand, we want to look after our soldiers and bring them back home - a value that our nation and Jewish tradition hold in the highest regard - but on the other hand we want to avoid future kidnappings."
Though no negotiation in the Middle East can ever be taken for granted, there is cautious hope. Hamas officials have reportedly travelled to Egypt with a list of prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a senior leader of Hamas's deadly Palestinian rivals Fatah, who they want to be freed. If all goes to plan, Gilad Shalit's long nightmare - and those of his counterparts in Israeli jails - could be over soon. ·
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