Israeli Sergeant Gilad Shalit Became National Rallying Point

Gilad Shalit visits an army museum in this family photo shown by Elana Levi-Zrihan.

The name at the center of the massive prisoner swap with Hamas held the rank of staff sergeant in the Israeli army, but during his five years of captivity he has been elevated to a  rallying point for the entire country.

Gilad Shalit, a 25-year-old dual citizen of Israel and France, was captured during his service in the Israeli army in 2006 when Hamas militants entered Israel and kidnapped him.  His contact with the outside world has been limited to three letters, a number of audio tapes, and one video of him released in 2009. Hamas refused a request by the International Red Cross to visit Shalit, fearing that it might give away his location.

Now, Hamas says it will release Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners who are being held in Israeli prisons. Past deals between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas for Shalit have fallen through at the last minute, but both sides said today that the deal will happen this time.

Though he has not been seen in five years, Shalit’s face and name can be seen on banners and signs throughout Israel, as thousands of Israelis have joined his parents’ public crusade to bring him home.

In 2010, the Noam and Avivia Shalit, Gilad’s parents, marched from their home in north Israel to Jerusalem to stand in front of Netanyahu’s residence and put pressure on the government to increase prisoner exchange talks. Joining them on the march were about 10,000 Israelis. Shalit’s father, Noam, has slept outside Netanyahu’s residence in a tent for much of his son’s imprisonment.

Noam Shalit  spoke out about the negotiations in 2010.

“Tens of thousands of citizens marching with us to Jerusalem are aware of the price for that is required for the release of Gilad. But they also know the price of abandoning him,” he said then.

Shalit’s imprisonment hits home to all Israeli parents because everyone except for those with religious exemptions are required to serve in the Israeli armed forces. Shalit, who decided to enter the combat division because his older brother Yoel had served there, had been in the army for less than a year before he was abducted.

Shalit, then 19, was captured by militants on June 25, 2006, when Hamas soldiers crossed through underground tunnels into Israel’s side of the southern Gaza Strip border and attacked the tank he was in.  Two other Israeli soldiers died in the attack, and three more were injured. Shalit became the first Israeli soldier captured since 1994.

Netanyahu reportedly came close to a deal with Hamas leaders in 2010, but talks fell through when Hamas released a video taunting Gilad’s father by portraying him roaming the streets, clutching his son’s photo, followed by a casket with an Israeli flag over it.

Netanyahu had also been unwilling to release the prisoners demanded by Hamas because of their association with violent attacks on Israel, but the prime minister appears to have changed his mind.

Dozens of Israelis converged on Shalit’s tent today to offer support to the family. The tiny structure is decorated with pictures of Shalit, as well as a large sign with the number 1,934, the number of days he has been in captivity, according to the Associated Press.

Shalit’s parents sat in the tent, smiling as people flooded to the area and cars honked horns in excitement, the report said.

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