Two years ago, the people of Israel finally sighed. Gilad Shalit has returned home.
It took more than five years and a great fuss for the Israeli Government and Shalit's captors (the terror organization: Hamas) to sign on this controversial deal. Some would say we gave up on too much- that we're letting more then a thousand killers go for just one soldier. However, there is not a soul in Israel who's not happy with Gilad's return. After endless days and nights without a human touch, Gilad Shalit received the biggest hug anyone has ever gotten. A hug of a nation.
Israel's small size has made us a family. For five years one of our sons was missing. There was an empty chair around the table during Shabbat dinners and Holidays. Everyone hugged Gilad's parents, Aviva and Noam, as another release deal failed. When Shalit's return aired, everyone’s televisions were set on the news channels. Everyone watched him get off the plane- skinny, quiet, and distant- and shed tears of joy. At night, people went to the streets to celebrate. Everyone cared.
Growing up in Israel is a bit different than growing up in the states. Every boy and girl knows that after graduating from high school they will serve in the Army. This service is mandatory; men serve for three years, and women for two. Since day one of boot camp, when you swear to serve the country, even at the price of your life, the country swears to do everything that's in its power to protect you. When a soldier is abducted, the government is expected to do whatever it takes to bring him back home. There were times of success and times of failure. Times when men came home to their families, and times when coffins were returned, so that the family would have a tomb to cry on. Unfortunately, a few release deals failed to succeed. The reasons are varied, but one thing is for sure: the public awareness always had a major effect on captives’ transactions.
For five years, the supporters of Shalit's return did not sit still. His parents built a tent outside the Prime Minister's residence. This tent was never empty. People constantly came to embrace and encourage the Shalit family. Activists handed out stickers and flyers, and from time to time, they even demonstrated outside of the Knesset. People have made it a point to never let the Shalit topic disappear from the public eye. Some said this ongoing massive campaign caused Shalit's takers to keep raising the "price" for his release. They said that the fact that there was not a day gone by without Shalit's name being mentioned in a newspaper eventually made Israel release more than 1000 killers in exchange for one Israeli soldier.
All of this may be true. I'm sure that the countless hits I get when I Google Shalit's name in Hebrew did not help the bargaining. However, I'm also confident that if the Shalit Family had given up, folded their tent after a couple of years, and headed home with their heads down, Gilad would not be home today. If Israel wasn't this one warm, loving family, where every mother saw Gilad as her son – the Shalit case would have ended up as a cold case.
Israelis never give up. Our country is 65 and still fighting for its survival. In 65 years we have overcome everything that one can possibly imagine. Our army is one of the most powerful armies in the world. One of the reasons for our strength is in our brotherhood; we are all brothers and sisters. We all know each other by two degrees, at the most. Our grandparents built our country with their bare hands. Now, it's our turn to protect this unique land. Some may fall while defending this precious piece of land and those who live there, we all know that. But we also know that when an Israeli is taken away while serving his country, we won't just sit aside and pray. We will bring him back.
To read Shalit's first interview, translated to English, go here.