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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Israel's army and national psyche
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

Undated family picture of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit
Cpl Shalit's ordeal is keenly felt by ordinary Israelis

For most Israelis serving in the military is a rite of passage.

Comprising the army, air force and navy, the Israeli Defence Force, to give it its official name, has a fundamental place in the national psyche.

Many Israelis will proudly tell you that their army "is the most moral in the world" and Israel is a nation that prides itself on bringing home its soldiers whether dead or alive.

The case of Cpl Gilad Shalit, captured on Sunday by Palestinian militants, is no different.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sent the Israeli army into Gaza to try to secure the 19-year-old soldier's release.

"We will not hesitate to take extreme steps in order to return Gilad to his family's embrace," said Mr Olmert.

For many Israelis, the army ticks at the heart of their security conscious nation.

Success and criticism

Since Israel's inception in 1948, the country has fought successive wars against the Arabs.

The Israeli army has also faced two Palestinian uprisings in the last 20 years.

The army gives young Israelis most is maturity, a sense of responsibility, a sense of affiliation, a sense of becoming part of the nation
Reuven Gal
Former army chief psychiatrist
Along with the military successes, the Israeli army has been accused of numerous human rights violations.

And for many, in Israel and abroad, the army's role in maintaining the occupation of territories captured in 1967 compromises the institution. A small number of Israelis, refuse to serve in the army in the occupied territories.

As a conscript army, the majority of Israel's teenagers serve in the military for three years.

Reuven Gal, a former chief psychiatrist for the Israel Defence Force, has summed up the importance of the army experience to Israelis in these terms: "What it gives young Israelis most is maturity, a sense of responsibility, a sense of affiliation, a sense of becoming part of the nation."

When many in the nation having been under arms at one time or other, Cpl Shalit's ordeal is keenly felt among ordinary Israelis.

Prisoner exchanges

The major question now facing Mr Olmert is how does he free the soldier? For now, Mr Olmert is applying massive pressure on the Hamas-led Palestinian government in the hope that they will cave into his demands. Mr Olmert has emphatically ruled out the suggestion that the soldier be released in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

In my mind, not only the top priority, the only priority is saving Cpl Shalit's life. It's getting him back home
Esther Wachsman
Mother of Israeli soldier who died in operation to release him

But exchanging captured Israelis for Palestinian prisoners is not unprecedented.

In 2004, Israel released 429 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners and returned the bodies of 59 in return for the release of one Israeli and the bodies of three of its dead held in Lebanon.

But some Israeli security experts say that a prisoner exchange now, to gain the release of Cpl Shalit, would only encourage more kidnapping and that Israel is no longer willing to meet the militant's demands.

"We paid a very, very high price for bodies, plus an Israeli criminal," says Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, referring to the prisoner exchange in 2004.

Israeli soldiers
The majority of young Israelis, men and women, serve for three years

The freed Israeli was not a soldier but a civilian held in Beirut by Hezbollah.

"We do not want to do that again," says Mr Bar, "because strategically that was a very expensive mistake."

The last time Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier was in 1994.

Nachshon Wachsman, 19, died during a rescue operation by Israeli special forces.

His mother, Esther Wachsman, knows more than most about what the Shalit's family are going through.

When asked by the BBC what advice she would give to Israeli government, she said: "I'm not a military person, I'm not a politician, I'm not a diplomat. And all I can say is, that in my mind, not only the top priority, the only priority is saving his life. It's getting him back home."

The most famous case in Israel has been the missing airman Ron Arad, who was shot down in Lebanon 1986.

Despite a large reward and repeated contacts through third parties, Israel has never learned what became of him and a vigorous campaign for information continues to this day.

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