Gilad Shalit cardboard figures
Cardboard figures of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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It always happens out of the blue - suddenly an obscure and depressing silence falls. Suddenly we notice that Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer promising, as was his wont, that he is doing everything to save him. And they too over there, his captors, have fallen silent. He has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It happened to us once before and it will happen to us again.

The land is now filled with whispers and rumors: The boy is no longer, "the boy that belongs to all of us." The guesses are spreading by word of mouth. Did he take ill and die? Did he try to escape and was shot? Was he hit by fire from our forces? Did his life expire in lost hope? All the security forces have been enlisted to try to solve the horrific mystery, they must find him. The computer gives the operation the name "Gilad Forever," as if it could read thoughts and history that is repeating itself.

For a moment it seems as if the key is at hand, but then it drops immediately. The efforts are being renewed and they will not sleep. The Germans, who have learned from disappointments, are prepared to help, despite everything. "Netanyahu disappointed us," they tell journalists, but for the family's sake we will not shirk our responsibility.

Now they are not just talking about signs of life, but also about signs of death, and they recall Ron Arad. Hamas is beginning to show signs that there is something to talk about; they are prepared to check and to give details about whether he was killed, or died, or was abducted, and where he can be found.

The ministerial forum urgently convenes and unanimously decides on its readiness for a deal - verified information in return for dozens of terrorists. Public opinion is agitated and the public exerts pressure, and there is no sensitivity greater than that. After all, it was the public that cried out for days - at no time did it forget him - and in future it will redouble its efforts, also at night. And if it was unable to bring him back before, it knows that it is a great mitzvah to do so after.

The top experts have examined the situation and ruled that there is substance to the information, and if the pieces are just collected, the laboratory will be able to put the entire puzzle together.

In the meantime, a senior minister accuses them of murder - their blood will be on their own heads and they will not be able to cleanse it, he says at a public gathering in Be'er Sheva on Shabbat. And they respond and accuse the Israeli government of holding cowardly and evasive negotiations, one step forward and then two back. The Germans keep their lips sealed.

And then suddenly there is a breakthrough. Hamas drops a bombshell - it has his personal effects: his clothes, rifle and even his personal diary. The family will get these on condition that the government pays for them, it will still cost us dearly.

The intelligence rating for this item changes accordingly: The diary must be obtained. That is the last thing we need - that passages from it will start filtering out about what happened to him during four-and-a-half years in a dark hole. The cardboard figure is liable to turn into flesh and blood. And in general, is there any question when it is so clear that we will not desert a soldier, and when we are talking about the possibility of a corpse, we are all bereaved bears in the field.

The Germans approach the Mossad, which approaches the prime minister, who gives the go-ahead. Under a heavy cloak of secrecy, the contacts are renewed to arrange an exchange deal. But it must be clear: We will not allow them to cheat us; we will first verify the rifle's serial number and only after that will we agree to free another few hundred terrorists.

That same sunny winter's day, the package was opened in the presence of the family. Their hands shook with excitement that reached a peak when the stained shirt was removed. "Is this your son's shirt?" the father was asked, and he recognized it. Wild animals had preyed on him. "How I wish that instead of the rifle, you would have returned him," the mother said.

The diary is meanwhile being kept under wraps, by orders from above. It is not good to harm national morale and weaken the public's staying power.

All those present are aware that the operation has not yet ended; it is at its peak. And there will be no choice - we will have to free more terrorists, people who have spilled blood, until we are able to see him return home - alive, and in essence dead.