Israeli Soldier Gilad Shalit To Be Released After Parents Sit In Protest For More Than One Year

The biggest prisoner swap in Israel’s history is about to take place. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured five years ago by Hamas, will be released in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinians serving up to life sentences for terrorism and other offenses.

The initial stage of the swap — one kidnapped soldier for 479 prisoners (279 of them serving life sentences) — will get underway within a few days. It may be hard for outsiders to understand how this swap is considered fair, and I couldn’t begin to explain the hot mess that is Middle East politics, but I went to Israel in March for a reporting trip and met with Gilad Shalit’s parents.

Well over a year ago, believing that not enough was being done by the Israeli government to return their son, Noam and Aviva Shalit marched from their home in Northern Israel to the steps of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence. There they erected a tent and have sat in protest all day, every day. (That’s Noam in the tent pictured here.) Even now they say they’re not budging until their son is safely released.

Everyone in Jerusalem knows exactly where the Shalits are and many people stop by to give them their condolences. Right in the middle of my interview with Noam, a young bride and groom pulled up in their town car, hopped out in full bridal regalia, and told the Shalits they wanted them to know that they were thinking of them. I joked that this must not happen much and they told me that, in fact, it happens all the time. People know that Gilad Shalit’s life has been put on hold and they feel the loss as their lives continue.

The situation was made worse by Hamas not following human rights laws or protocols in how they held him. They wouldn’t allow the Red Cross to visit him and his only contact with the outside world has been with a few lettters, DVD and audio tapes in exchange for dozens of Palestinian prisoners.

When I first heard of the plan to release 1,000 prisoners, it seemed almost crazy. But the Israelis I interviewed basically supported the plan. What they tried to explain to me was that things were different for them because military service is compulsory for all young people. So literally everyone sympathizes with the plight of the Shalits as they realize that it could have been them or their own children who were kidnapped instead.

In fact, one of the more interesting moments during my time over there was when everyone took five minutes out of their day, in the middle of the day, to stop whatever they were doing to silently reflect on what the Shalits have gone through. I was in the middle of another interview — with Prof. Nava Dekel of the Biological Regulation Department at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. All of her research deals with fertility and she was explaining to me how an endometrial biopsy prior to a course of IVF can make implantation more successful. But she warned me that at 11:00 she would be stopping for five minutes of silence. And she did. Right in the middle of the interview. And then we talked about Shalit and some other folks from the Institute wanted to talk about Shalit, too. On the news that night, I saw footage of how even drivers on the highway stopped their cars in the middle of the road and got out for five minutes of silent.

It made me feel so guilty that I don’t know the names of which American soldiers have been kidnapped.

The situation in Israel and with Palestinians is complex, of course, and there are no easy answers for resolution. But I am thankful for the Shalits that they will soon get their son back and I hope he’s able to ease back into normal routines as quickly as possible.

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