In the summer of 2006, rockets rained down on Israel from its northern and southern borders as its army engaged militants on both fronts in fierce battle. What made this period one of the most difficult in Israel’s recent collective memory was that for the first time in over a decade, an Israeli soldier was taken prisoner while still alive. If all goes according to plan, this harrowing saga will come to an end when, after five years of captivity, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit returns home.
Those unfamiliar with the plight of Shalit or the immensely popular movement advocating for his release from the hands of the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza have expressed shock and confusion that Israel’s government, one which is known to be tough on terror, has indeed negotiated with and given in to many of Hamas’ demands.
Following the abduction of Shalit, Hamas made it clear that the release of the 24-year-old Israeli would stir up difficult moral dilemmas for Israel’s government and the Israeli public in general. According to reports, 1,027 Palestinians will be released to Hamas in exchange for Shalit. Many of those being released by Israel have been tried and convicted in Israeli courts for the most despicable of crimes. Dozens have “blood on their hands” and directly took part in the murder and maiming of countless Israeli civilians.
The reasoning behind the release is not easily understandable to outsiders. The deal has struck many as irrational and presents threatening security and strategic liabilities to Israel; many dangerous individuals will once again be free to attack the Jewish state, and it provides an incentive for terror groups to kidnap additional Israelis.
To fully understand why Israel’s security-oriented government approved the deal, you have to start by walking to the Prime Minister’s residence in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. There, you will find a modest (but passionate) protest tent dedicated to the release of Shalit, where his parents have kept constant vigil for months. The campaign to release Shalit started, and now ends with his parents: Noam and Aviva. They have traveled the world, protested across the country, taken on the Israeli political elite, and put pressure on the most important figures in the Israeli and Jewish world to secure their son’s release. Their ordeal has resonated with the vast majority of Israelis, who each year send their teenage sons and daughters into compulsory military duty. They have carried out a sophisticated grassroots campaign with the help of Gilad’s friends, dubbed “Gilad’s Army.” The media-savvy movement for Shalit’s release has attained international coverage and sparked inspired social media endeavors.
Not to be discounted in bringing about Shalit’s release is the Israel Defense Force’s code of ethics, particularly the Jewish tenet of Pidyon Shvuyim. The principle of Pidyon Shvuyim grants the redemption of captives utmost importance and gives a whole new meaning to the age-old mantra of never leaving a man behind. To bring a single soldier home at such a steep price displays an undying commitment to Israel’s young men and women by their leaders, fulfilling Pidyon Shvuyim in its most honorable form.
Jews around the world have reacted with great happiness at the news of Shalit’s eventual release. Despite the painful price, there is a reason why untold millions stand by Noam and Aviva Shalit. Israel’s establishment in 1948 marked the founding of a modern safe haven for Jews which would serve as our collective home. Ever since, Israelis and Jews in the diaspora have felt a particularly staunch sense of mutual commitment and responsibility for one another. The release of Shalit has come to represent his return not only to the home of his parents in Mitzpe Hila, but to every home in Israel; it is as if the parents of Israel are embracing a son and the children of Israel are welcoming home their brother.
Last July, I had the privilege to meet with Noam Shalit at the protest tent in Jerusalem. I spoke with a man who was tired, heartbroken, and understandably frustrated. His answers were short and calculated, displaying the experience of an elder statesman. Although I was one of hundreds to speak with him that day, the perseverance and conviction Noam Shalit spoke with was remarkable. I was touched by his impassioned plea to bring his youngest son home. As I left Jerusalem, I tied a ribbon to my backpack, put on a shirt emblazoned with Shalit’s likeness, and proudly carried his story home.
Although we are thousands of miles apart and of different nationalities, regardless of the language barrier separating us, despite the lack of familial ties—I am eager to welcome my brother Gilad home.
*Michael Yadegaran holds a B.A. in Near East Studies from the University of California, San Diego and serves as the Vice President of 30 Years After.