Updated October 9th, 2023 at 18:59 IST

Israeli Hostages Crisis: Revisiting Gilad Shalit's symbolic abduction that haunts Israel

The abduction of Israeli soldiers and civilians by Hamas presents a severe crisis for the government, stirring emotions and raising concerns for their safety.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
Edited by: Vinay Pande
This time, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have abducted dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers as part of a multipronged, shock attack on Saturday. | Image:AP/Republic
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The capture of dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians — elderly women, children, entire families — by Hamas militants has stirred Israeli emotions more visceral than any crisis in the country’s recent memory. It has also presented an impossible dilemma for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Government.  

The Islamist militant group’s 2006 seizure of a sole young conscript, Gilad Shalit, consumed Israeli society for years — a national obsession that prompted Israel to heavily bombard the Gaza Strip and ultimately release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis, in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.  

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A shocking multi-pronged attack

This time, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have abducted dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers as part of a multipronged, shock attack on Saturday. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group smaller and more brazen than Hamas, said Sunday that it alone had seized 30 hostages.  

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Their captivity raises the heat on Netanyahu and his hawkish, far-right allies, who are already under intense pressure to respond to the killing of over 700 Israelis in the Hamas attack so far. Netanyahu’s vow to unleash the full force of the Israeli military on Hamas has raised fears for the safety of Israeli civilians spread in undisclosed locations across the densely populated Gaza Strip.  

The 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit  

Corporal Gilad Shalit was 19 when he was captured in June 2006 by a squad of Palestinian militants who had tunneled from Gaza into Israel to attack his tank near the border fence. He disappeared into the labyrinths of Gaza's densely populated cities and refugee camps for five years and four months. Last October, he was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. By then, he was a symbol of national unity, the face on millions of posters and T-shirts, the reason for yellow ribbons tied to countless cars, the inspiration for songs, and the cause of thousands of dedicated campaigners.  

Early on June 25, 2006, Palestinian militants from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Popular Resistance Committees, and Army of Islam crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip through a tunnel near Kerem Shalom and attacked an IDF post. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and another two, apart from Shalit, were wounded. Two of the attacking Palestinian militants were also killed. Shalit suffered a broken left hand and a light shoulder wound and the militants captured him and took him via a tunnel into Gaza. Shalit's captors issued a statement the following day, offering information on Shalit if Israel were to agree to release all female Palestinian prisoners and all Palestinian prisoners under the age of 18. Shalit was the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians since Nachshon Wachsman, in 1994.  

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Israel's efforts and operation ‘Summer Rains’

Israeli forces entered Khan Yunis on June 28, 2006, to restore quiet after repeated rocket attacks. Freeing Shalit was not one of the objectives of the mission called "Summer Rains". According to an Israeli embassy spokesperson, "Israel did everything it could in exhausting all diplomatic options and allowed Mahmoud Abbas to return the abducted Israeli… This operation can be terminated immediately, conditioned on the release of Gilad Shalit." On the same day, four Israeli Air Force aircraft flew over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's palace in Latakia, because Israel views the Syrian leadership as a sponsor of Hamas, according to an IDF spokesperson. The operation did not succeed in finding Shalit.  

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Return of Gilad Shalit  

On 29 June, the commander of the Israeli Southern Command, Aluf Yoav Galant, confirmed that Shalit was still in Gaza. Israel's Minister of Justice, Haim Ramon, added that Shalit was being held in southern Gaza, specifically. On October 18, 2011, Shalit was returned to Israel as part of the agreement with Hamas. Hamas militants during the exchange wore suicide belts if Israel tried to change the terms at the last minute. The first 447 Palestinian prisoners were also freed and transferred as part of the exchange; the prisoners were also exiled from Israeli territory.  

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Published October 9th, 2023 at 18:59 IST