As a five-year-old international hostage drama wound to a close today, it quickly became one of the fastest trending topics on Twitter. The hostage deal involves the long-awaited release of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for the past five years, in exchange for Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
News of Shalit's release and the controversial agreement spread quickly around the world, creating a stream of tweets. The hashtag #GiladShalit moved along computer screens almost as quickly today as #SteveJobs did last week, following the death of the Apple co-founder and former CEO. A few days before that, #iPhone5 topped Twitter, when Apple released a new phone that turned out to be the iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5, as expected.
As of 5:30 pm Eastern time today, #GiladShalit tweets were appearing about every 10 seconds.
Tweets from Netanyahu
Shalit had been held by his captors since a June, 2006 raid at the border of the Gaza Strip. Sporadic 'proof of life' was sent to Israel, but he was not allowed any visits from the International Red Cross to check on his condition. A multi-year, international campaign has been waged to pressure his captors into releasing Shalit, who was kidnapped and held hostage, simply as a bargaining chip.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his official Twitter feed, told the world on Tuesday afternoon (evening, Israel time), "We have concluded arduous negotiations with #Hamas to release #Gilad #Shalit. He will be coming home in the next few days."
Other updates from IsraeliPM included, "Earlier today I have updated Aviva and Noam #Shalit about the upcoming developments," referring to the soldier's parents, and "especially thank the #Egyptian government and its security services for their role in mediation & concluding of the deal #Shalit.
Among tweets in response to the news were, "the heart is happy, the mind is worried," from Shiran01, who lives in Israel. The worry presumably refers to the serious concern shared by many that the thousand prisoners released will pose a dangerous threat to the safety of Israel.
Another tweet reads,"May #GiladShalit be returned safely to his family after 5 years in captivity. More than 1000 prisoners for 1...," from AmyinCapetown.
Indeed, there were and are many critics of the deal: "Don't let em do it, [one] thousand killers released for one single soldier?? no f--ing way," tweeted TheKingRoberts.
Social Media Built Awareness
Facebook also offered an opportunity for people around the world to share their thoughts. The Free Gilad Shalit group, which has 107,112 members, featured posts from the U.S. to Israel and Norway, where Terje Akselsen posted, "Hope everything goes according to plan now..."
Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes extensively about the intersection of Jewish themes and technology, said he learned about the deal Tuesday from a New York Times Breaking News alert, and quickly Tweeted it to his 2,357 followers. It was, in a way, coming full circle, as social media have been used extensively to raise awareness of Shalit's plight.
"The hashtag #FreeGilad is one that I have been using for at least three years now," said Miller. "In fact, it was one of the first hashtags I ever used on Twitter. I've also been asked by leaders of the 'Free Gilad' movement if I would tweet certain statements at certain times of the year, on the anniversary of his captivity."
"It's not just news for Israelis or Jewish people, but an international story."
Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse, who tweets "Juicy Bits of Judaism" under the handle Jewish Tweets, recalled that Shalit was captured when Twitter was only three months old.
"I was just thinking how much the Tweet4Shalit Twitter campaign did to raise awareness," she said Tuesday.