By Richard Beeston and Ian MacKinnon
UNTIL he was captured by Palestinian militants last Sunday there was little to distinguish Gilad Shalit from the thousands of other teenagers doing military service in the Israeli army.
He was raised, the middle of three siblings in a small community in the rolling hills of northern Galilee, near Israel’s border with Lebanon. His father, Noam, is a manager at the Iscar machine tools company; his mother, Aviva, works at the Society for the Protection of Nature. His brother is a college student and his sister is at high school.
Friends describe Gilad as studious, good at physics and a little shy. But they say he is quite determined in his own quiet way, and that when he was called up a year ago he volunteered to join a combat unit. His elder brother, Yoel, 21, is a student at a polytechnic in the northern Israeli port of Haifa. He has a younger sister at high school.
Today the future of the Middle East could hang on the fate of this otherwise unremarkable 19-year-old.
What happens to Corporal Shalit will almost certainly determine whether the region is plunged into a new cycle of violence, or whether the Middle East peace process can somehow be revived.
If Corporal Shalit is killed while in the hands of militants linked to Hamas, any prospect of a rapprochement between Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian Government will vanish for years to come, perhaps for ever.
Israel will seek revenge against those it holds responsible — not only on the Hamas leadership in Gaza but also against the group’s more militant exiled leaders in Beirut and Damascus. But should Israel’s military pressure — or a deal to swap Palestinian prisoners for the soldier — persuade Hamas to release Corporal Shalit, surprising possibilities could open up.
Largely obscured by the kidnap drama, Hamas made a potentially historic concession on Tuesday by implicitly recognising Israel in a deal with the mainstream Fatah movement that could lead to a government of national unity.
Even as it was publicly squaring up to Israel over the captured soldier, Hamas was opening a back door to peace talks with Israel.
Last night the omens were not good. Somewhere in Gaza’s refugee camps, probably in a makeshift underground cell, the missing soldier was being held under tight guard.
Ehud Olmert — a Prime Minister without the distinguished military past of his predecessors Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Rabin — cannot afford to show even the slightest sign of weakness in his dealings with people his Government regards as terrorists.
Corporal Shalit may be an unremarkable young man, but as a soldier his wellbeing matters hugely to his countrymen. The military plays a huge role in every Israeli life, for a small country with a large conscript army. Everyone has a close relative or friend serving in the armed forces. That is why no Israeli can fail to be moved by the smiling face on the front pages of their newspapers, and by the ordeal of his family.
It is also why it is axiomatic that every Israeli Government must do all in its power to secure the safe release of captured soldiers and repatriate the bodies of the dead.
“Bring Gilad Back,” said the headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily, echoing the prayers of his family, whose modest home in northern Israel has been besieged by television crews.
The magnitude of the crisis is being felt at the highest levels. Corporal Shalit’s kidnapping was raised yesterday by the White House and European Union.
Since the second intifada erupted almost six years ago, nearly 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis have been killed in a vicious cycle of suicide bombs and military retaliation.
The identities of most of the dead have long been forgotten by the outside world, but Corporal Shalit — whatever his fate — is destined to be remembered for a long time to come.