The longest media campaign in recent Israeli history, that included mass marches, a protest tent encampment and a text messaging mission, has come to an end with the return of Gilad Shalit today.
In the five and a half years since his abduction thousands of people acted independently or in response to the extensive, widely covered public relations campaign. At first, members of two organizations created to fight for Shalit’s release staged regular Friday demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
The Shalit family conducted a low-key campaign, mainly on the international front: In March 2007, when the Palestinian unity government was announced, Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, asked the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, to complete the prisoner-exchange negotiations. Since Gilad holds dual Israeli and French citizenship, his family also sought assistance from President Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2008 Gilad’s parents, Aviva and Noam Shalit, took part in a march held on his behalf in London.
The turning point in the public campaign, however, seemed to come in July 2008, with the return to Israel of the remains of abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. From that point on the Shalits were alone on the battlefield, despite continued support from the Regev and Goldwasser families and from the public. A few months later the Shalits made the decision to change their strategy, and brought in the Rimon Cohen Sheinkman public relations and strategic consulting firm. The organization to free Gilad Shalit launched a campaign to mark 1,000 days since his abduction that included the use of an audiotape of his voice and the creation of a typeface based on his handwriting. About two weeks before that day, in early March 2009, the family erected their protest tent in the capital in an effort to pressure then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to close a deal to bring Gilad home before the imminent end of his term.
Tami Sheinkman remained by the Shalits’ side and in effect became the family’s PR agent. Shimshon Liebman, head of the campaign to free Gilad, directed the various activities on his behalf, primarily through the adjunct organization he established, “the army of Gilad’s friends.”
In March 2010 a new campaign was launched that included a television spot in which the image of Gilad’s face morphed into that of the missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad. In April of that year thousands of Israelis wore white in solidarity with the campaign for Gilad’s release.
The public protest reached its peak two months later, when the Shalits and thousands of supporters set off on foot from the family home in Mitzpeh Hila, in the Western Galilee, to the Prime Minister’s Residence in the capital. Over the course of the 12-day march, an estimated 200,000 people joined in. There was some public criticism over media coverage of the event: The Maariv daily, for example, distributed yellow ribbons in support of the release efforts.
In addition to the public actions the Shalits, the activists and other supporters also held dozens of meetings with journalists and media executives, with current and former military officials and with Knesset members and other political figures, all in an effort to recruit support for a prisoner exchange agreement. Some of these efforts touched on linguistic issues: Sheinkman and her colleagues tried to find out whether there was a way to avoid having the future prisoner exchange known as the “Shalit deal,” in an attempt to prevent the family from being associated with any resultant security issues.
The protests continued at full force over the past year, with businessman Kobi Sidi’s initiative to get everyone in Israel to stop whatever they were doing at 11 A.M. on March 15 in a show of solidarity for Gilad. Other activities targeted Hamas, such as blocking roads carrying money, fuel and materials to the Gaza Strip.
Yoel Marshak, head of the Kibbutz Movement’s task force and a prominent figure in the public campaign for Shalit’s release, is convinced that the various events helped bring about the agreement that will end Gilad’s captivity on Tuesday.
“Our public activities undoubtedly helped. I know how much the family’s sitting across from Bibi’s home, and standing outside the weekly cabinet meetings, troubled him and his fellow cabinet ministers,” Marshak said. “It drove home that there are people who cannot accept the situation, that the prime minister holds the key and must do what they ask.”
The real change in the character of the campaign seemed to happen during the traditional Independence Day torchlighting ceremony in May, when Gilad’s brother Yoel Shalit and Yoel’s girlfriend Yaara Winkler burst onto the stage to protest “the government’s impotence” in obtaining Gilad’s freedom. That set off a public debate over the end of the Shalits’ quiet public image. One month later, to mark five years since the abduction dozens of actors, singers and artists were each filmed spending an hour in a solitary confinement cell meant to resemble Gilad’s.
The Shalits later called on Israelis to “vote to save Gilad” by sending a text message, and during the same month Aviva, Noam and Yoel Shalit, together with Winkler, chained themselves to the fence outside Netanyahu’s home.
Reut, a nonprofit association of army reservists that was created as the result of a meeting at the Shalits’ protest tent, took it upon itself to “go beyond rallies and protests.” In the past two months its members on three occasions tried to delay or prevent Palestinian security prisoners from receiving visitors. Last Tuesday morning, hours before the exchange deal was announced, they were successful in keeping a bus carrying visitors from reaching Shita Prison in northern Israel where many security prisoners are held.
“If we had a part in a fraction of the pressure that led to the prime minister’s decision to go for a deal, we definitely think we accomplished something,” Reut chairman Col. (res. ) Moshe Fisher said.