JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A five-line biography on the website of the public campaign for his freedom sums up the life of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian militants at the age of 19 and due to be released in a prisoner swap.
“Gilad Shalit, a son to Noam and Aviva and a brother to Yoel and Haddas, was born in Nahariya on 28 August 1986. When he was two years old, his family moved to Mitzpe Hila in the western Galilee. Gilad studied at Maona elementary school and middle school at Kfar Vradim. He studied at Manor-Kavri high school and excelled in science. In 2005, Gilad enlisted in the tank corps and served in Battalion 71 of the 188th Regiment.”
Beyond that sketch of a typical young Israeli barely started out on adult life, there has been little to say about him as he has sat, hidden and largely incommunicado somewhere in Gaza.
Yet over the past five years of his captivity, the shy, bespectacled tank crewman has become a haunting symbol for Israelis torn between a desire to bring him home and a gnawing awareness that his freedom would not come cheap.
His parents, Noam, an engineer, and Aviva have won widespread sympathy among compatriots, for whom sending their children to do military service is a shared rite of passage.
The day after an Egyptian- and German-brokered deal to swap 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including more than 300 serving life terms for attacks on Israelis, was announced, a clock counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds Shalit has been gone was still ticking on the freedom campaign’s website.
Such prisoner exchange deals between Israel, Arab countries it has battled and Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups are nothing new for Israelis, who have traditionally seen repatriation of their nation’s captured sons in Biblical terms.
“Thy children shall come again to their own border,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quoting from the Book of Jeremiah, said on Wednesday in announcing the deal with Hamas, an Islamist group that is one of Israel’s most bitter enemies.
For Palestinians, the release from Israeli prisons of men and women whose life stories are also typical of a region locked in conflict for generations, was also a cause to celebrate those whom many regard as heroes in a struggle for statehood.
Shalit, now 25, was seized on June 25, 2006 by militants who tunneled their way out of Gaza and then surprised his tank crew along the frontier fence, killing two of his comrades and spiriting him into the enclave.
The former Israeli armed forces chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, said in May that Israel has been unable to locate Shalit after years of trying and urged that a “reasonable price” be paid for his liberty.
His parents have campaigned hard, though never seemed to relish living in the public eye. His mother last year described her son as “quiet and introverted”. She said: “All he was interested in high school was the computer, television and the basketball court, where he spent most of his time.”
The last sign of life received from the conscript soldier, who has since been promoted from corporal to sergeant, was a videotape released in September 2009 by the militants who hold him. Israel freed 20 female Palestinian prisoners in return.
Pale and thin, Shalit pleaded for his life. He has not had any visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“I hope that the current administration, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, won’t waste this opportunity to achieve a deal, and as a result I will finally be able to realize my dream and be released,” said Shalit, who also holds French citizenship through his paternal grandmother, who was born in France.
“Thank you very much, and goodbye,” he said, standing up briefly as the video ended.
In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip murals sprouted, showing an elderly, grey-haired Shalit, still awaiting his freedom.
On Wednesday, as Israelis prepared for Sukkot, a season of feasting that commemorates the Jews’ Biblical wanderings in the wilderness, those images gave way in Israeli media to front-page photos of Shalit’s beaming mother and of jubilant crowds outside the protest tent his parents erected months ago outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence.
A banner headline in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth daily trumpeted simply: “Gilad is coming HOME.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald