It was at around 7.30 last Tuesday evening that Kol Yisrael interrupted its radio broadcast to inform listeners that the Al Arabiya satellite news channel had just announced that a deal had been struck to release Gilad Shalit in exchange for over 1,000 terrorists being held in Israeli jails.
For Israelis, who had been waiting for over 5 years for this day, it was a time of deep emotion. Corporal Shalit had been abducted by the Hamas in a cross border raid on June 25, 2006. Since that time, the only information confirming his condition had been contained in three letters, an audio tape and a DVD that Israel had received in return for the release of 20 female prisoners.
The DVD, which was filmed on September 14, 2009, was the last evidence received confirming that Gilad Shalit, who had unrelentlessly and cruelly been denied visits by the International Red Cross, was still alive and being held somewhere in Gaza.
The worldwide campaign that has led to his impending dramatic release, provided everything goes to plan, is unparalleled in Israel’s history. The memory is ingrained deep in the consciousness of Israelis of how efforts to free air force officer, Ron Arad, from the Shi’ite militia back in 1988 had failed and how, ever since, he has been declared missing presumed dead. Noam and Aviva Shalit were determined that their son would not suffer a similar fate.
However, the price that is to be paid for Gilad’s freedom leaves all of us with a heavy heart. Those to be released include Ahlam Tamimi, who drove the suicide bomber to the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem in 2001 in an attack that claimed 15 lives, including 7 children, and left some 130 people injured. Interviewed in jail, Tamimi had boasted “I am not sorry for what I did…. You’ll see me on the outside in the end.”
Another of those to be freed is Amana Muna, who used the internet to lure 16 year-old, Ofir Nahum, to his death at the hands of gunmen near Ramallah. And then there is Nasser Batima, who planned the 2002 Passover Seder massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in which 30 civilians were killed and 140 wounded, and the kidnappers and murderers of Nachshon Waxman, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa’adon…. All these, and so many others, are to be released for just one Israeli soldier.
There are those in Israel who oppose the deal. They rightly claim that it will strengthen the hand of the Hamas and encourage further kidnappings. They point out that many Palestinian prisoners released in earlier exchanges had returned to the ranks of the terrorists.
However, the IDF principle of not abandoning the wounded in the field of battle meant that Shalit could not just be forgotten, and it was recognized that the present window of opportunity resulting from political developments in Egypt and Syria and the internal struggle for popular and international recognition between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas leadership in Gaza might soon close never to open again.
And so, provided everything goes to plan, over one thousand smiling, flag waving Palestinian terrorists will be released during the coming weeks. They have enjoyed prison conditions that have included family visits, the right to exercise and recreation, stipends from the Palestinian Authority and the opportunity to study at Israel’s Open University. In return, Israel will receive a pale, shy 25 year-old, who has spent a fifth of his life in solitary confinement in a dungeon in Gaza.
As Aviva Shalit put it: “Gilad will not return the same child we sent.” The challenge to rehabilitate him will be enormous. Was it worth the price in freed terrorists and murderers? Most Israelis would say yes, for “a person who saves a single life is as one who saves an entire world.”