Saving Sgt. Shalit – others wait and wonder

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held in captivity by Hamas for five years, has been freed on Tuesday. But not all Jewish families in Israel are celebrating, as many are still waiting for their loved ones to return home after being captured.

­Behind the name making headlines around the globe for five years, there is a young Israeli soldier whose hope for freedom has come true. He has been freed in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, the first of which are already leaving Israeli jails.

But there are many families who still know nothing about their loved ones’ fates. Nazmi Halabi is one of those who RT correspondent Paula Slier has met.

Every day Halabi comes to a place set up to look after Israeli soldiers who are alone in the country or who come from difficult backgrounds. But being there is often more of a comfort to him than the youngsters he helps, because it brings him that little bit closer to his son Majdi, who disappeared one year before Gilad Shalit was taken hostage.

“I have said this over and over again. The government and the country are not doing enough for Majdi. Neither is the media giving us the options it gave to the Shalit family,” Halabi argues.

“I’m not embarrassed to say – the government and the country are not doing enough for my son and the rest of those missing in action. It is important for us to bring our soldiers home. As parents who send our sons to war, we need to know that the country will do everything possible to get them back.”

Israel has done just that in the case of Gilad Shalit. But at what cost? Will militants now be empowered to kidnap another Israeli soldier – and will Israel be willing to pay this price again?

There are at present seven Israeli soldiers who have been kidnapped or who are missing in action.

Majdi Halabi disappeared while hitchhiking to his army base.

Major Ron Arad was captured 25 years ago after his aircraft was shot down over Lebanon. The last pictures of him alive were taken in a prison in Iran.

Guy Hever disappeared 14 years ago. He was last seen at his army base, one kilometer from the Syrian border.

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His mother, Rina Hever calls the situation infuriating.

“It’s unacceptable that after 14 years, the government still has nothing to tell us. Our demand is that the government bring us any information, alive, dead, here, in Lebanon, in Syria, just bring it. But they’ve brought us nothing,” she complains.

Rina is certain her son is still alive. And while she is pleased Gilad is coming home, she is disillusioned in her government, which made it possible for him, but not for her son.

“It’s about media attention, PR, how Gilad’s family succeeded in marketing their son,” she believes. “We thought, as a family, this wasn’t relevant. We thought it was enough that guy was an IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldier in uniform. But we were wrong, very, very wrong.”

The Born to Freedom Foundation is trying to get it right. It offers US$10 million for information leading to missing soldiers.

“Gilad Shalit is unique in the sense that his whereabouts were known, and from the start it was clear he was alive,” Eyal Ben-Reuven from the foundation says. “We treat the other cases as if the soldiers are still alive, but there are many question marks as to their fate. We just don’t know.”

The majority of Israelis support the Shalit deal – more than a thousand prisoners for one soldier. This is a country that depends on its army for its very survival. There is an unwritten code that every soldier who goes to war must be brought back home.

The place in front of the prime minister’s office was the heartbeat of the free Gilad Shalit campaign. For nearly two years his family, friends and supporters camped out there. Every morning when Benjamin Netanyahu left his home he was reminded of the soldier who could not return to his.