Had the morning of Sunday, June 25, 2006 been uneventful, three young recruits inducted into service back in 2005 and serving along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip would have completed their mandatory army service and been routinely discharged into civilian life yesterday. Instead they were surprised at 5:30 a.m., when eight Palestinian infiltrators tunneled their way under the Kerem Shalom crossing, emerged 300 meters inside Israel behind army positions and split into three groups. One squad attacked the soldiers' tank with missiles and grenades. Lt. Hanan Barak and St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutsker were killed instantly. Within days, for all but their loved ones and friends, their memories had been erased from the public consciousness. Instead, the spotlight focused on the third soldier, Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who, apparently wounded, was taken prisoner. Several days later, 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri, hitchhiking home from school, was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. He became another forgotten statistic. Then, on July 12, Hizbullah guerillas infiltrated Israel's border with Lebanon, killed eight IDF soldiers (who today recalls their names?), carried away Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and ignited the Second Lebanon War. While the identities of the war's dead faded into obscurity, the names Goldwasser, Regev and Schalit became national obsessions. Though it seemed likely to the authorities, early on, that the Hizbullah captives were dead - the country remained in denial - the mantra "Bring the boys home" was applied equally to Goldwasser, Regev and Schalit. Goldwasser and Regev have indeed been "brought home" - at an unacceptably high price from the politico-security perspective - in an exchange that enjoyed strong support among ordinary Israelis. Now attention focuses exclusively on Schalit. The emotional blackmail, media frenzy and leadership vacuum that set Samir Kuntar free now threaten to unleash an even greater "prison escape." Hamas is demanding 1,000 terrorists, including the masterminds and facilitators of some of the most heinous bloodbaths of the second intifada - including the Dolphinarium, Sbarro and Netanya Seder massacres. The expertise these luminaries of the Palestinian "resistance" could provide in a third intifada is too frightening to contemplate. NEWLY DISCHARGED yesterday, the men from Gilad Schalit's company have commendably chosen, rather than the traditional trip abroad to "decompress," to devote themselves to freeing their comrade. Immediately after replacing their fatigues with civilian clothes, they marched to the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv to pressure Defense Minister Ehud Barak to "do the right thing." Later, the ex-soldiers and other supporters of Schalit rallied in Rabin Square. Their implicit message: Bring Gilad Schalit home, at any price. Reports coming out of Cairo - denied in Jerusalem - say that Israel is prepared to release Marwan Barghouti as part of an exchange for Schalit. Charged with 37 murders, the Fatah leader was convicted of "only" five killings in the course of terrorist attacks he supervised in metropolitan Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That would indeed bring Gilad Schalit home - at any price. AS SCHALIT'S army buddies were setting off on their Tel Aviv march, yet another east Jerusalem Palestinian Arab was transforming his bulldozer into a lethal weapon. Following in the footsteps, as it were, of Husam Taysir Dwayat, who 20 days ago used his bulldozer to kill three people and wound 45, Ghassan Abu Tir on Tuesday used his bulldozer to crush cars and ram a bus near the King David Hotel. Fortunately, an armed passerby took prompt action, killing the terrorist, who, in a matter of minutes, had managed to wound 29. Had Abu Tir and Husam Taysir Dwayat survived their rampages, their names would no doubt figure on Hamas's list of prisoners they want released. The strategic challenge the government of Israel faces is not Hamas's custody of Cpl. Schalit, but its suzerainty over Gaza. Of course Israel must strive to bring Schalit home, but not at any cost. For instance, Israel could reasonably offer to trade for its IDF captive the Hamas "parliamentarians" it took into custody within days of Schalit's capture. The government could also debate MK Avigdor Lieberman's proposal to capture the most senior Hamas leaders in Gaza to use as fresh bargaining chips. Or it could weigh a rescue attempt. What it must not do is cave in to populist sentiment, throw open the prison gates, and let legions of terrorists out to wreak more bloody havoc.