For the past few years, visitors exiting Israel’s Ben Gurion airport parking lot have all had a campaigning message printed on their receipt. “Free Gilad Shalit” the legend runs.
Those three words – adorning everything from bumper stickers to t-shirts and Facebook pages – have been at the heart of the country’s largest ever private PR initiative – and its most successful.
Shalit has been held in isolation ever since the then-19-year-old soldier was captured in a Hamas raid into Israel on 25 June 2006, denied Red Cross access and with messages from him parcelled out as carefully negotiated concessions.
All the while, his family and their supporters have run an exhaustive campaign to keep his name in the headlines and to pressure the authorities to get him back by any means possible.
A number of Israel’s leading PR experts have given their services pro bono, and the imagination of the public, in a country where army service is mandatory for Jewish citizens, has been duly stirred.
More than one radio and television host recounts during every show how many days the soldier has been in captivity, and, in an echo of the US Vietnam vet campaign, tabloid newspaper Maariv gave away a yellow ribbon to be displayed in support of Shalit’s release.
Numerous pop stars have recorded special songs about Shalit; there has even been a children’s book.
Earlier this year, Israel’s top-rated Channel Two mocked up a studio to look like a prison cell in which celebrities each spent an hour for a 24-hour live broadcast.
This became an issue that united left and right, religious and secular, in Israel’s famously fragmented society, although the terms of the release – with 477 Palestinian prisoners freed immediately and another 550 released within two months – have been more controversial.
Today, the day of Shalit’s release, media management will play no less a part.
Hamas has announced that it has made a full-length documentary of his years in prison which will prove he was fairly treated; Jerusalem has been boosted domestically by this story’s prospective happy ending; and hopes that the lengths it is willing to go to rescue one of its citizens will help soften its image on the world stage.
The 19-year-old combat soldier who was transformed into the frightened child of the Israeli nation, emerges a 25-year-old unlikely icon, the oblivious star celebrity of the unprecedented PR campaign which helped win him his freedom.