A human story

October 19, 2011

In the end, it was all about a human story: a father's hug, a mother's tears. And at the centre of a national and international geopolitical convulsion, with all the implications for the future of the peace process, or the suggestion that violence pays, was a skinny boy of 24, Gilad Shalit.

Just 19 when he was captured by Hamas, the only survivor of a three-man tank crew, the then Corporal Shalit came in his captivity to represent every Israeli. He was everyone's son, grandson or brother. He wasn't a stereotypical brash Israeli hero or a brilliant academic genius: instead Gilad Shalit was a slightly nerdy teenager, who collected sports statistics and went into the army with his friends and schoolmates, with no clear idea of what he wanted to do after his national service. Perhaps his very ordinariness is what saved him.

Except that Gilad Shalit was not ordinary to his parents, grandfather, brother and sister. He was special. And he became special to every Israeli who sent a son and daughter to defend the country in its citizens' army. In the heartbreaking decision to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Israel this week showed its face to the world.

This action, it declared, was how it should be regarded by the international community: a country that would go to the ends of the earth to bring back a conscript soldier, even if it meant potentially allowing ex-prisoners to resume their terrorism.

To his great credit, Benjamin Netanyahu, no stranger personally to the high human cost of terrorism, resisted the temptation to make political capital out of the release. Instead, we saw the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and army chief of staff greet the pale, malnourished figure of Gilad Shalit, not with a formal handshake but with huge smiles and a warm hug. And Shalit himself, who would have been unlikely ever to have come face-to-face with his chief of staff, rose to the occasion. He saluted Lt-Gen Gantz rather bravely, before being enveloped in a bear-like embrace. Welcome home, Gilad.

Last updated: 11:26am, October 19 2011