My Word: Out of Step

Schalit march to J'lem: Mistake in the address?

By
July 4, 2010 00:28
Noam and Aviva Schalit march near their home in Mi

noam aviva schalit march 311 AP. (photo credit: Associated Press)

July 4 has very different significance for Americans and Israelis. But both, in their own way, reflect independence. While the United States was busy celebrating its bi-centennial on July 4, 1976, this date went down in history for another reason. It was the day that Israeli forces pulled off the most daring counterterror operation ever: freeing the hostages hijacked aboard an Air France flight and held, until the dramatic rescue, at Uganda’s Entebbe airport.

No wonder movies were made about it. Some 100 hostages were set free by IDF commandos who had traveled 4,000 km. to reach them rather than negotiate with terrorists. Three hostages were killed in the raid and another, a woman who had been hospitalized, was later murdered.

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The only fatality among the rescuers was the raid’s commander, Yoni Netanyahu. It was current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as the commanding officer of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, who chose Bibi Netanyahu over his brother for the rescue mission of a hijacked Sabena plane in 1972.

Barak once told me how he “consoled” Yoni, telling him there would be future operations in which he would take part.

One assumes that the price of rescue operations remains at the back of the minds of both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak.

Ditto, the price of terror. Not so far at the back of their minds, in fact.

Which is why the “Free Gilad Schalit” march – full of the best intentions – seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

Who can blame the Schalit family, four years after their son was abducted, for setting out on an all-or-nothing campaign for his release? But the fact that their 11-day march will take them from their Galilee home to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem shows they might be sadly off course.

Netanyahu, and his immediate predecessors, might have missed opportunities to obtain Schalit’s freedom – and certainly there are those who feel that Barak as prime minister squandered chances to discover the fate of Israeli POWs missing since the First Lebanon War in June 1982 – but ultimately one thing needs to be kept in mind: Netanyahu is not the one holding Schalit.

Whatever you think of his politics and character, he is not the bad guy in this case. Hamas is holding Schalit.

Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal just last week said the organization would abduct more IDF soldiers if Israel didn’t meet all its demands and set free every last prisoner on the list it had drawn up.

The trouble is, I suspect Hamas will carry on trying to abduct soldiers – and maybe civilians – even if Israel does give in and meet its demands.

The day in February 2004 that Hizbullah returned the remains of abducted soldiers St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Sawayid and kidnapped alleged criminal Elhanan Tenenbaum – in return for 400 terrorists – a suicide bomber blew up a Jerusalem bus close to the Prime Minister’s Residence, killing 10 people and wounding scores.

Government figures released last week, in an obvious attempt to counteract the effect of the Schalits’ media-event march, show that 52 percent of those released in the deal that day have returned to terrorism, killing another 27 Israelis.

ON JULY 4, 2006, a few days after Schalit’s abduction, a rocket launched from Gaza landed – for the first time – in the center of Ashkelon, in a school playground, sending “what-if” type shock waves around the country. By the end of the month, much of the North was under attack in what was to become the Second Lebanon War.

Since then, we have also had what amounts to a war in Gaza.

Hamas to the south, Hizbullah to the north – and their sponsors in Damascus and Teheran – all watch how Jerusalem responds to attacks and determine their actions accordingly. They also monitor how the world reacts, and at the moment they have more reason to feel encouraged than Israelis do.

Israel wants to demonstrate to the Palestinians in general, and Hamas and Hizbullah in particular, that kidnapping does not pay. But it is in a trap.

While Hamas continues to blame Netanyahu for Schalit’s plight – without a trace of irony or shame – it is clear that a mass prisoner release in return for Schalit will not only strengthen Hamas by numbers, it will send out a message to Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, who has been unsuccessful in negotiating a mass release of Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails, will hear the following: There is no point in negotiating with the Zionists.

Force, Hamas-style, is the only language Israel understands.

There will be others in the Arab and Islamist world receiving the same signal and it does not bode well.

As a Post editorial pointed out last week, Hamas has not even bothered to answer Israel’s offer, made six months ago, to release 1,000 terrorists, including 450 Hamas operatives, 100 of whom are murderers responsible for the deaths of about 600 Israelis, and an additional 550 Fatah prisoners.

Netanyahu has (so far) rejected Hamas’s demands to include “mega terrorists” like those responsible for the 2001 suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Sbarro restaurant that killed 15; the 2001 bombing of Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium that killed 21; the 2002 Rishon Lezion attack in which 16 were killed; the Moment Café where 11 were killed in 2002 – a few meters from the Prime Minister’s Residence; and the infamous Netanya Park Hotel massacre in 2002 when 30 people were killed for the crime of gathering for a Seder night meal.

MY HEART goes out to the Schalits. My mind says they are heading in the wrong direction – they should be heading for the border with Gaza for a mammoth media event. The Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem is the wrong address. They not only run the risk of raising the price for their own son, but if they can show Hamas that Netanyahu can’t withstand the pressure, they are raising the inevitable price that will be paid by others later on. And although we assume Schalit is still alive – partly because he is still worth more alive than dead to Hamas – without a visit by the Red Cross we cannot confirm it.

Sadly, by focusing on Netanyahu, the family and supporters are also creating a divide along political lines in one of the few issues on which the country is united, that Gilad Schalit should be home.

Schalit’s tragedy, in fact, has drawn people together well beyond Israel’s borders. As his parents prepared to start their march from their Galilee home, vigils and rallies were held in places ranging from Paris and Rome to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

On June 24, the “True Freedom Flotilla” sailed from Pier 40 on Manhattan’s West Side to the United Nations building on the East Side in a peaceful but demonstrative show of support for a real humanitarian issue.

More is at stake than the fate of Schalit. The entire country is being held hostage. Now is not the time for division. Whatever the outcome of Schalit’s terrible ordeal, the life-anddeath implications of the decisions taken now will continue to affect all of us well into the future.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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