AFP- Gilad Shalit, the young conscript held by Palestinian militants since 2006, remains a symbol of what most Israelis believe is their country's sacred duty to bring its soldiers home at any cost.
Shalit was a shy and retiring 19-year-old corporal with a passion for basketball when he was captured on June 25, 2006 by militants from Hamas and two other groups that tunnelled under Gaza's border and attacked an army post.
Less than three days later Israeli troops and tanks swept into Gaza as warplanes pounded targets across the impoverished territory -- including its sole power plant -- in a failed attempt to recover him.
The baby-faced soldier soon became a cause celebre whose fate officials have never missed a chance to raise with visiting diplomats and whose continuing captivity has been the constant theme of PR campaigns by other young soldiers.
For Hamas, the Islamist movement that seized power in Gaza in June 2007, Shalit is a valuable prize: Israel over the years has released thousands of prisoners in exchange for the return of just a few soldiers, dead or alive.
Since the capture Hamas has allowed Shalit to send three letters and an audiotape. And Shalit's father Noam, who led the campaign for his release, was able to send one letter to him through diplomatic channels.
Israeli officials have worked so far in vain through Egyptian mediators to secure Shalit's release, including sending senior aide Ofer Dekel and internal security chief Yuval Diskin to Cairo to try to nail down a deal with Hamas.
But on March 17, 11th-hour talks on an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap collapsed as both sides accused each other of about-turns and bad faith.
Shalit was born in northern Israel's Mediterranean resort town of Nahariya on August 28, 1986. Two years later, his family moved to the village of Mizpe Hila, perched on the rolling hills of rural Upper Galilee.
A keen sportsman, he excelled at basketball and is an avid fan of cycling's Tour de France, which relatives said he followed religiously each summer.
Shalit -- who also has French nationality through his father -- graduated with distinction from Manor Kabri high school, where he specialised in science.
He helped his parents Noam and Aviv with the guest rooms they ran in Mizpe Hila, but their rural idyll came to an abrupt end when Gilad was snatched in June 2006, less than a year after starting his national service.
A corporal at the time of his capture, he has since been promoted to staff sergeant.
Journalists from all over the world descended on his family's doorstep in the days and weeks after his capture, as political leaders and military chiefs paid sympathy visits to his anguished parents.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in November 2008 that Israel "would do everything necessary and possible, even if it means dangerous operations," to release Shalit.
But over the years the army never launched a raid to free Shalit, either because intelligence was never good enough to pinpoint where he was being held or because of fears he might be killed in the process.
Ironically, when Israel unleashed a fierce bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza just after Christmas 2008, followed by a ground invasion, securing Shalit's freedom was not one of the military's objectives.
"Gilad Shalit is not among the objectives that we had set for ourselves in Gaza," an army spokesman told AFP.
Israel's chief sephardic rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote a special prayer for his release that has been recited once a week in synagogues in Israel and abroad.
To mark his 20th birthday on August 28, 2006, his friends and families organised a tear-jerking ceremony close to the place where he was captured two months before.