Monday, October 17, 2011

Shalit: Israeli captive set for freedom

Gilad Shalit was a 19-year-old enlisted man guarding an Israeli army post when Palestinian militants attacked his tank, killed the two men he was serving with and took him prisoner.

Since then, he has become Israel's cause célèbre. Israelis are overjoyed at the news that their country has inked a deal to get him back this week in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

"He really is the child of us all," said Daniel Taub, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, noting that almost all Israelis do military service.

Much of Israel came to a halt nearly five years after his capture in response to a Facebook campaign that went viral in the small Middle Eastern nation.

On March 15, cars pulled to the side of the road, schools halted classes and Israeli President Shimon Peres paused at a conference in the southern Israeli city of Eilat.

Israelis were not the only ones marking the soldier's captivity.

"Jews across the world have been pining for Gilad Shalit's release for over five years," said William Daroff, a vice president of the Jewish Federations of North America.
"Thousands of us have had an empty chair at our Passover seder tables reserved for Gilad," he said, referring to the celebratory meal that marks the beginning of Passover. "We have prayed for his release. We have met with his parents, we have sat with his family in their tent outside the prime minister's residence, we have marched for Gilad's release."

Shalit's parents led a 12-day march from their home in northern Israel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem in June 2010 and camped out in a tent there until last week.

Soon after the protest camp was set up, the British government demanded Shalit's "immediate and unconditional release."

"His detention is unjustifiable and unacceptable," the British Foreign Office said on Shalit's 24th birthday.

Other nations have also called for Shalit's release. In June, the United States condemned Shalit's captivity "in the strongest possible terms," according to a White House statement. America "joins other governments and organizations around the world" in calling for his immediate freedom, the statement said.

Shalit was born August 28, 1986, in the Israeli coastal city of Naharia and moved with his family to western Galilee two years later.

He has two brothers and was an outstanding science student in high school, his family says.

An Israeli military operation immediately after his capture failed to free him, and he has been held incommunicado throughout his captivity.

His family calls it a violation of international law that organizations such as the Red Cross have not been allowed to see him and that they have only been able to get one letter to him.

The last proof he was alive came in a video in 2009 in which the noticeably thin young man held a newspaper dated September 14.

In the video, he talks about his family, saying: "I miss them very much, and I am longing for the day when I will see them again."

The day after his capture, a trio of Palestinian groups, including members of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad, said they would release him in exchange for all female Palestinian prisoners and all security prisoners under the age of 18 held by Israel, the Shalit family says.

If this week's deal goes as planned, Israel will release significantly more than the Palestinians originally demanded despite the objections of at least some Israeli families who do not want to see the killers of their relatives released.

The Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the agreement to release more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, according to a poll published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth the day before he was expected to be released.

Israel's ambassador to London summed up the mixed feelings many are experiencing in his country as they wait for their most famous captive to taste freedom.

"Seeing Gilad coming home ... is really coming home to every family. But at the same time it's very bittersweet," Taub said, since "every one of us in some way has been touched by terrorism."

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