Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinian fighters on the Israeli side of Israel's border with Gaza over five years ago, is scheduled to be released today as part of a prisoner-swap deal between Hamas and the Israeli government brokered by Egypt. His parents Noam and Aviva, who have been camping out in occupied Jerusalem for a year have left their protest tent to spruce up their home in the tiny northern Israeli village of Mitzpe Hila for their son's homecoming.
But they're not counting their chickens yet; they've had too many disappointments for that. "It's not over until it is over," said Noam Shalit. "Only when we see Gilad in our hands will we know that all is behind us and that he's home. Right now we're waiting for him."
Their sheer dogged persistence in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seriously negotiate appears to have paid-off. They refused to allow their son to be forgotten and didn't hesitate to make a nuisance of themselves in Israel's corridors of power.
He may have been locked-up for a sizeable chunk of his twenties but he'll be received as a hero in Israel; he'll learn that he's been promoted to Staff Sergeant and will certainly be inundated with lucrative book and movie opportunities.
Sadly, few know the name of even one Palestinian unsung hero set to be released from Israeli prisons. Like Shalit, they also have mothers and fathers who have been longingly gazing at photos of their sons and daughters, in many cases, for a great many years longer than the Shalit family has.
The only internationally well-known name among Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel is that of Marwan Barghouti, who is not due for release because, according to Hamas, Israel drew a red line. The leaderships of Hamas and Fatah may cry a few crocodile tears over Barghouti but, in fact, they're probably relieved as he's a popular contender for the presidency. In July, Israeli authorities placed Barghouti in solitary confinement following his calls for ‘million man' marches in support of the Palestinian National Authority's statehood bid in the UN.
While the international community celebrates the Israeli's return home, the first wave of 450 Palestinian prisoners (another 550 to follow within two months) going back to their families will either go unnoticed outside the Palestinian territories or be painted as freed terrorists by the media. Israel insists they sign an undertaking not to return to terror while acknowledging it is expected at least 60 per cent will do so.
It's feasible, although extremely doubtful, that the Israeli President Shimon Peres could refuse to sign-off on the pact. Moreover, the deal could be spoiled by Hamas which on Saturday demanded an additional eight female prisoners.
Provided it comes off, glory will rub off on Netanyahu. Warm and fuzzy photo-ops with a grateful Shalit are sure to increase his reelection chances, which sceptics say is why he did an unexpected U-turn. The popularity of Hamas will also rise among its own constituents.
There may also be a slight warming of relations between Israel and Egypt following Netanyahu's effusive thank you to the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces Mohammad Hussain Tantawi, who brokered the deal, "for a great and successful effort" that "warms the hearts of all Israelis". The 1.5 million residents of Gaza may also benefit as there are reports that following peripheral talks, Israel may be disposed to ease its blockade and reopen border points provided Hamas permits the return of international observers.
Even Shalit's captors the Salah Al Deen Brigades are getting in on the PR act. They are set to release a video documenting the soldier's years of detention to prove to the world that he's been treated fairly and humanely — and show the rapport he's developed with his jailers. There is a debate raging in Israel over the wisdom of the swap which some believe is unethical or a betrayal of victims' memories. Others fear it might encourage further abductions. Yet others question why such a deal couldn't have been sealed years ago. The majority, however, are too busy savouring the euphoria of the moment to care.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.