Deep in the earth, alone in the darkness, an Israeli soldier is buried alive. Hour after hour he sits alone, perhaps ill, perhaps hungry, counting the days of his captivity, if he can differentiate between day and night. Day after day, week after week and month after month, and here we are three years later. Words of sorrow, pain and yearning have long been shorn of content, and now ring hollow. They can no longer describe the enormity of loss, heartbreak and frustration of such a tragedy, which average people could barely endure without losing their minds.
No one involved in this affair is suffering more than the soldier and his parents. But we too, as citizens, may suffer - the law obliges us to be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces, and this law obligates the state to bring home soldiers fighting at its behest.
The obligation to bring soldiers home is not a matter of only legally-mandated conscription, but also of Jewish values, including the halakhic mitzvah to redeem prisoners held in foreign captivity, and it is deeply engraved into the Jewish and Israeli consciousness. These values, latent in such expressions as "Don't leave the wounded in the field," have been taught to generations of IDF soldiers and have been the justification for asking them to risk their lives for the greater good.
Three years after Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, the reality of his captivity undercuts these fundamental values and harms the collective consciousness of mutual responsibility. Every new recruit will now tell himself: "Anyone who suffers this awful fate is alone." The state will effectively abandon him, though its leaders may talk about him on television, his parents will be shown suffering, his smiling pictures from better days will hang on every wall, and we can count on the politicians to hold media appearances at his expense, filling the airwaves with empty expressions of sympathy. With time his image will become blurred in the public consciousness, and the nation will grow tired of the burdensome issue of his release. The matter will fade into a private one involving only the soldier and his family.
Such feelings are a direct blow to the army's core, one built on volunteers to combat units and dangerous missions. It's not for nothing that the chief of staff is demanding Shalit's release - he, better than anyone, realizes the effect of the soldier's captivity on other soldiers.
The list of considerations against a prisoner-exchange deal is known to all: the potential harm in freeing murderers, offending those wounded or robbed of loved ones in terror attacks, and the problematic precedent of surrendering to terrorists.
These claims must not be dismissed. But while the price - releasing 400 murderers who will join their brothers in Gaza and abroad - is heavy, it can still be met. The prime minister will have to pay a political price to the opponents of a swap, but this gives him an opportunity to prove himself to be a real leader, brave enough to make hard decisions even when they are unpopular.
Releasing Gilad has a significant price tag, but the price of not releasing him may even be higher - the price of giving up the IDF's values, and compromising its moral and ethical principles, is virtually immeasurable. These are the real guarantors of Israeli security.
Ultimately, after all these considerations, there is the indisputable ethical consideration - the state's obligation to free its captive soldiers. In the Shalit affair, the cup of suffering has already overflowed and become too heavy to bear. The keys to Gilad's cell are in the hands of each of us. We must all demand that Israel's government return Gilad home, and fast, before another name is added to the long list of IDF casualties.