Cover story in Issue 26, April 13, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.
"It isn't over, my dear Gilad," declared Noam Shalit, looking out at the crowd of hundreds who had come to join the family to call on outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to free over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, among them approximately 450 who are responsible for some of the most horrific terrorist attacks that Israel has known in the past decade, in exchange for their son.
"It has been 1,000 days that you are not with us, 1,000 days that you and we are living in a nightmare and the leaders of this country have not found a way to bring you home. But it isn't over, my dear Gilad, and it won't be over until you come home."
Saturday, March 21 marked 1,000 days since Cpl. Shalit was seized from Israeli territory in a cross-border raid and dragged, wounded in the shoulder and the hand, into Gaza. Two other soldiers were killed in the raid, carried out by Hamas and other Palestinian militias. Since then, his Hamas captors have not allowed him to receive any visits, even from the Red Cross. He has been allowed to show signs of life only twice - first in a recorded message on June 25, 2007 and then in a letter to his parents a year later. "I continue to suffer health and mental problems and from the depression that accompanies this kind of life," he wrote, and he urged the government not to abandon its efforts to secure his release.
Volunteers had set up the protest tent a few hundred yards from the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem last September. The family joined the protest in early March, in a last-ditch effort to convince Olmert to agree to Hamas's demands before a hard-line right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu, considered even less likely to give in to Hamas's demands, takes over from him. (This was to have happened by March 22, but since Netanyahu has asked President Shimon Peres for an additional two weeks to put his coalition together, the new government is expected to convene in early April.)
The sad, restrained, half-hour-long Saturday night vigil marked the end of a week of extremes. It began with hopes that the deal, hammered out in Cairo with Egyptian mediation, was all but signed, but the hopes of the family and their supporters were dashed with Olmert's statement, on Wednesday, that he would not agree to release the 450 prisoners.
"Gilad should not have to bear on his own small back the strategic and security problems of the entire state of Israel," said the soft-spoken Noam Shalit, a technical engineer, anger creeping into his voice. After prolonged applause, he continued: "And he has been forced to do exactly this for 1,000 days."
Shalit then went back to sit on a plastic garden chair in the tent, facing the crowd, next to his wife, Aviva, and other family members. Looking out at the crowd, Aviva seemed to smile wanly, her foot tapping slightly to the background music of Israeli rapper, Subliminal, who had recorded a song for Gilad. "We came here for you, to us you're a heroâ€¦ It's hard to be in place, it's hard to be in time, I want to see your face."
And then a young woman, identified only as Maya, a friend and neighbor of the family, sang "Avinu Malkeinu" from the High Holiday liturgy in a hauntingly full voice. "Our Father, our King, be gracious with us and answer us, though our deeds are not worthy; treat us with charity and kindness and save us," she sang. The crowd, many sobbing openly, waved the yellow, candle-like phosphorescent light sticks that the organizers had handed out.
And then the Shalits returned to their small village, Mitzpe Hila, in Israel's northern Galilee region, promising to continue the struggle to release their son, and the organizers, many of them high school students, promised to continue their demonstration.
Throughout that week, thousands of Israelis had come to the tent to express support for the Shalits. But during that same week, just across the street, close to the then-called Moment restaurant where in March, 2002, a suicide bomber had killed 11 and wounded 54, a similar white tent was filled with protesters calling on the prime minister not to release the prisoners and not to give in to Hamas's demands.
This tent had been set up by a right-wing group called Almagor, the Terror Victims' Association. Signs calling "Yes to freeing Gilad. No to freeing prisoners," were pinned on the tent's walls, along with dozens of posters with black silhouettes against a red background, representing the images of the "future victims" who will die, the organizers accuse, if the terrorists are released
"The campaigners and the press are creating a dance of death," Meir Indor, Almagor director and a longtime pro-settler, far-right activist, told The Jerusalem Report, pointing to the Shalits' tent. "They are abdicating all of Israel's sacred values and principles, and they are willing to endanger the security of hundreds of future victims to release one soldier. That is not Zionism, it is fatalism."
Although Almagor had deliberately set up their tent in such close proximity to the Shalits', the two groups rarely interacted during their days of simultaneous protest, divided by the road that leads to the prime minister's official residence. But the two groups are divided by much more than a few meters of asphalt and different opinions about the release of prisoners. They are also divided by different worlds of pain, conflicting views on political and security issues and contrasting beliefs about some of Israeli society's most basic questions.
The week before March 21 was particularly
cold in Jerusalem, and bitter gusts of wind whipped the demonstrators camped out in the protest tents. There were few visitors to Almagor's tent, and at one point the organizers had pulled up and left. "But then we realized that there is massive public support for our position," Indor told The Report, "So we came back and set up the tent again." But the steady stream of visitors to the Shalits' tent, and the relative quiet at the Almagor tent, seemed to indicate that public opinion was not with them.
The vigil tent calling for the prisoner exchange had been there for six months and become something of a permanent fixture, with big white posters marking each passing day of Gilad's captivity. It was originally established by two sisters, Yael Barkai, 52, a teachers' trainer and a mother of four from Pardes Hanna in northern Israel, and her sister, Ruthie, 48, who told the media at the time that "everyone has or had a child in the army, or a cousin or a nephew or a niece."
But as Olmert's term was coming to a close and once the Shalits decided to join the tent, it became the center of a well-conducted campaign, orchestrated by a public relations firm, which provided its services free of charge. Elementary schools brought in busloads of school children. A group of senior citizens from a retirement home in Haifa, two hours away, organized a mini-van to drive them to Jerusalem. Passersby stopped in, to shake the hands of Aviva, Gilad's mother, and Noam.
The kibbutz movement joined in, providing logistical support and organizing food, port-a-johns and collecting contributions. Posters with Gilad's young, serious face were everywhere. The organizers set up large billboards and provided visitors with Post-its to write notes. Neighbors brought in stock pots with warming soups.
Groups of high school students organized themselves into round-the-clock shifts, selling T-shirts with the words, "Save Me" printed on them, and handing out yellow ribbons and bumper stickers calling for Gilad's release.
Sitting on plastic chairs in the tent, close to the gas heaters that someone had donated, around a table with fresh flowers in Coca Cola bottles and baskets of fruit, the Shalits welcomed everyone who stopped by, shaking their hands and accepting their embraces, even when their faces seemed to say that they had no more strength. But as the news worsened for them, Aviva seemed to sink into her heavy coat-sweater, increasingly withdrawn and pale.
Yonit Menashe, 31, from Ashdod, a sixth-grade schoolteacher, shook their hands gently, as if not to hurt them. "Gilad is a symbol and he has become the son of all of us," she told The Report. "My children are still young, but as a mother, I have to know that if I send my child to the army - and, unfortunately, I believe that even when my children are older we'll still need an army - then the army will take care of them."
"I came here for him," said Carmel Jacoby, a secretary from Beersheba, taking her hands out of her pockets to point to the poster of Gilad Shalit. And, after a second, she added, "And for him," pointing to her sleeping son, Amir, a year and a half old, bundled into his stroller and sucking on his pacifier.
The PR advisers also organized high-profile visits, and many politicians, aware of the presence of TV crews and photographers, also dropped by. Early in the week, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Ami Ayalon, former candidate for head of the Labor Party and former head of both the navy and the Shin Bet security agency, came to the tent. "We sent him," he told The Report. "We have to bring him back. If it were possible to return him without releasing terrorists, we would. It isn't possible. And I can say, categorically, as former head of the Shin Bet, that releasing the terrorists will have little effect on the level of terrorism in Israel."
Tami and Yuval Arad, wife and daughter of Ron Arad, the Israeli airman missing since his plane was shot down in Lebanon in 1986, also came. Although he was taken alive, negotiations for Arad's release collapsed in 1988, and his fate is unknown. "A captured soldier is like a soldier who was wounded in battle," Tami Arad told Israeli TV while sitting next to the Shalits. "And as we must never leave a wounded man in the field, we must never abandon a prisoner, either. I don't know if the government is doing everything it can to bring Gilad back - the bottom line is that he still isn't here."
Yehuda and Esther Wachsman, parents of Nachshon Wachsman, who was kidnapped by Hamas militiamen in 1994 and executed during a failed rescue attempt a week later, told the Shalits that their ordeal reminds them of their own suffering. "We went through this for a week, and they have been enduring it for almost three years. I can't imagine how they are holding up.
It is impossible to describe in words the pain that a family goes through. The Shalits, and all of us, must do everything they can to bring Gilad home," said Yehuda. And Esther added, "We identify with their suffering. The government must bring Gilad home."
And there were parents who had lost children to terror, too. Looking over at the Almagor tent, a woman who would give her name only as Sarah, whose daughter was killed in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank, said, "Keeping the terrorists in jail or getting revenge won't bring my daughter back. The only comfort I can find is believing that maybe we can save Gilad's life."
Karnit Goldwasser, widow of Ehud, whose kidnapping in June 2006, together with Eldad Regev, sparked Israel's Second Lebanon War, declared: "His name is Gilad Shalit, but he is a soldier in the army and he represents every one of us. What is the struggle about? About a
single soldier or about our society's values."
Goldwasser's and Regev's bodies were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange in the summer of 2008. "To make things easier for themselves, the government is trying to bring this down to the level of the individual. It is Gilad who is in captivity, but it could have been anyone. The government doesn't want us to think about that."
However, several cabinet ministers did visit the tent - including Defense Minister Ehud Barak - although when the time came to vote, the deal was not approved. And, in a clear attempt to deflect political criticism to emotional channels, even Aliza Olmert, wife of the prime minister, paid a visit to the tent.
By mid-week, a survey by the Dahaf Polling Institute found that 69 percent of Israelis favored a deal to get back Shalit even if it would include the release "of hundreds of
terrorist-murderers" and the deportation of some of them outside the territory of the Palestinian Authority. Only 22 percent said they were against such an agreement.
As the stream of visitors continued, Hava Levi, 25, a diminutive woman who teaches at a religious girls' high school in Jerusalem, looked out from the tent organized by Almagor and sighed angrily. "My suffering began before Gilad Shalit was captured, and it will continue whether or not the Arab prisoners are released. I want to prevent other people from suffering as I do."
Levi was critically hurt on June 11, 2003, when a suicide bomber killed 17 and wounded more than 50 on a crowded Jerusalem bus. "We can't return the dead and we can't make my body whole again," she told The Jerusalem Report. "But at least we can open people's eyes and help them realize that, by releasing these terrorists, they are signing the future death warrants of other Jews. Death lurks around the corner for the Jewish people, and by releasing the terrorists, we are inviting more death."
And activist Indor added, "They are talking about Gilad Shalit's rights and his parents' rights. But what about victims' rights? Don't the families of the people murdered by these terrorists, and the people wounded in the terrorist attacks, have rights, too?"
Also in the tent was Yossi Mendellevich, from Haifa, whose son, Yuval, was killed at the age of 13 in a bus bombing in Haifa, in March 2003. Mendellevich, argues that Israel has not "examined every option for freeing Shalit. They have not even tried to cut back on the privileges accorded to Palestinian prisoners, for example. But it's still not too late to do these things, so that we can both bring back Gilad Shalit and not release the terrorists."
He continued, "The Shalit family is saying that the life of a soldier - their son, Gilad - is more precious than the life of a civilian - those who will be killed by the terrorists if they are released. If the terrorist who murdered my son is released, and he is on the list of prisoners that the Hamas is demanding, then I will know that my son's life was worth nothing in the eyes of this government."
And what would those who oppose the deal do if it were their son in captivity, in place of Gilad Shalit? Levi's father declined to give his first name, but, standing next to his daughter, answered readily, "I probably would do exactly what the Shalits are doing. But that is why they should not be making the decision and that is why I am not making the decision. We are calling on the prime minister to make the right decision. And the right decision is to protect the hundreds of Israelis who will be murdered and wounded if the terrorists are released."
Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, says that the differences between the camps do not represent a dichotomy but rather should be seen as the two sides of a genuinely terrible dilemma. "Here we see the basic dilemmas between the individual and the collective, and we see victim pitted against victim. Gilad Shalit is a victim who was violently kidnapped, in a way that Israelis do not consider to be a normative means of struggle. Therefore, one side says, he should be returned at any price. But the families of those killed in terrorist attacks and the people who were wounded in those attacks are victims, too, and they say that no price should be paid to the murderers. And it is truly a dilemma, because no side is right, and no side is wrong."
But according to Indor, the two tents are divided along political lines, left and right, and there definitely are rights and wrongs. "This issue isn't about releasing Gilad Shalit," he said, his disdain for the demonstrators across the street evident. "Everyone wants Gilad Shalit home. The support for the prisoner exchange comes from the left's distorted view that we should always forgive and reconcile. That's phony crap. There can never be forgiveness or reconciliation between a victim and his victimizer - the Nazis paid for their sins and the Palestinians must pay for theirs, too."
And newly elected Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, from the far-rightist National Union Party, standing together with his media adviser, Baruch Marzel, both supporters of Meir Kahana's now-illegal Kach party, nodded in agreement. "This production by the left is an attempt to defeat the country and to bring us to our knees. We must defeat the Hamas, not ourselves."
"Doesn't the left understand that we will never have peace with the Palestinians?" Indor added on the night of the vigil, speaking with The Report by phone just as the news broke that police had dismantled explosive devices found in the parking lot of a crowded shopping mall in Haifa.
But others believe that the disagreement between the tents represents rifts and changes within Israeli society. Says Attorney Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nur, a lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University and Hadassah College, "Israel was once a highly collectivist society, in which the individual was expected to sacrifice himself for the good of society. The tent opposing the prisoner release is still holding on to this view. But Israel is rapidly moving towards a more privatized society in which the individual is at the center and the relationship with society is more complex and more nuanced.
"We still do expect the individual to sacrifice his life for the good of the collective - if necessary, if there is no other choice - but we also place a very high value on the sanctity of life," she continues. "That is what the support for the prisoner release is expressing."
Also coming out on the side of the release-Shalit camp is modern-Orthodox thinker Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. "As citizens and as Jews," he asserts, "there is a point at which you expect that the government will not apply a cost-benefit analysis. As citizens, there is a point at which you expect solidarity: Gilad Shalit took a risk for us and we have to take a risk for him. Judaism is a religion in which the individual has many commitments to the collective, but we also believe that the community has obligations to the individual."
Halbertal believes that the objections to the prisoner release stem from what he refers to as a "bleak perspective - the perspective that we will always be at war, that we can never allow ourselves to think of the individual because the entire nation is at risk. But the State of Israel is strong. Does anyone really believe that if we release 400, or 1400, prisoners, Israel's strategic balance will be affected? We know it will not be."
Some view the possible deal as a lose-lose situation: abandon Gilad Shalit or suffer from the released terrorists, Halbertal says. "But releasing Gilad Shalit is a sign of our strength. It is a sign that, as a society, we care for one individual and think he is worth any number of the others.
"The people in the Shalit camp actually believe in Israel's strength, because they understand that there is a point at which the sanctity of the individual's life must take precedence. Those who oppose the release are concerned that Israel will be seen as weak, but it is they who see themselves as weak, because they perceive themselves and society as so terribly vulnerable."
Halbertal continues, "And when you maintain such a bleak perspective, your heart hardens, and you become harsh and tough in places where you should be kind. Individuals and societies lose their compassion when their worldview is so bleak."
Both Halbertal and Gavriely-Nur also cast the discussion in terms of Jewish philosophy and history. Halbertal notes that in Jewish thought, the redemption of prisoners is considered a great mitzva (commandment). Noting that a source in the Talmud also states that "one must not redeem the prisoners for more than their blood is worth," he says that this view was applicable "when the Jewish people still lived in Exile and were still dependent on the paritz (the ruling nobleman), who could pick out any one of us at any time. But we are no longer in exile; we have a Jewish state and Jewish sovereignty. And therefore we are strong enough to be compassionate."
In the Shalit dilemma, Gavriely-Nur believes that Israel is becoming more tolerant of and caring for prisoners of war. "If we look through Jewish history," she argues, "we see, for example, the zealots' mass suicide on Masada, rather than sacrifice their honor and freedom. And in the Zionist ethos, for many years, being killed rather than being taken prisoner was considered the epitome of heroism, as were events such as Trumpelodor's death and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. More recently, after the establishment of the State, soldiers who had surrendered were once considered traitors; some were even put on trial when they returned. Israeli soldiers were expected to fight to the last bullet, to their death, to protect the nation. But in the Yom Kippur War, there were so many failures by the government and the military and so many soldiers and officers were taken prisoner, that the attitude began to change. Society welcomed them home warmly, even if the military authorities did not."
The Israeli military, Gavriely-Nur notes, is largely made up of conscripts and is only partly professional. Therefore, she says, the country has "a contract with its soldiers that it will do everything to protect them. This contract is based on the idea that a soldier will be willing to sacrifice his life in combat if he must, but that if he falls into captivity, the state will do all it can to bring him home and will not abandon him. Each soldier can go to battle because he knows that if he is taken prisoner, the entire country will search for him and rescue him.
Quoting former chief of staff and current Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Noam Shalit declared at the rally, "A state that forgets its soldiers, in the end, its soldiers will forget it." That is, Gavriely-Nur continues, the other aspect to this: the effect that abandoning PoWs to their fate will have on present and future
Tal Danon, an earnest 11th grader with deep blue eyes, had been volunteering at the Shalit protest tent for nearly a week. With the support of their school, the prestigious Boyer High School in Jerusalem, he and a dozen other students have been sleeping at the site, forgoing their studies and even some of their matriculation exams, scheduled for mid-March. With the gravity and simplicity of adolescence, he declares, "I intend to serve in a combat unit in the army. As kids who are going to be conscripted, we know that we may have to risk our lives. And maybe we will be killed. If I get killed, there's nothing the government can do about it. But if I am captured, there is a lot the government can and must do. But it isn't doing it for Gilad Shalit. It makes me sad."
"I cannot measure it," Gavriely-Nur says, "but something has been broken. This contract between the state and the individual is very precious. It is the true source of our strength. When the government refused the prisoner deal, it broke something very central in the fiber of our society."
Indor derisively dismisses the concept of a "contract" between the individual soldier and the state. "Our contract is survival, and to do what we have to do to survive. A soldier takes an oath to do everything he can for the state. But society has become weak, and some soldiers and their parents no longer understand this."
At the beginning of their ordeal, more than 1000 days ago, the Shalits, quiet-spoken and mild-mannered, maintained a low social profile. Willing to talk to the press, they spoke of their concern for their son and were rarely critical of the government. But as the days, and then years, went by, the Shalits, guided by their media advisers and their supporters, became increasingly publicly critical of the government, and increasingly directed that criticism towards Olmert.
"We came to this place two weeks ago," Noam Shalit declared at the rally, "to demand that the prime minister immediately take the steps that he must take to bring Gilad home even before the end of his term. You [Olmert] sent Gilad to that mission from which he never returned. It is your duty to bring him back to the army, to his home, and to his
familyâ€¦ Don't establish more committees of learned professors and don't give us explanations about why it is impossible. You've had almost three years to do this."
In response to the mounting criticism, Olmert and other government officials accused the family of complicating the negotiations. When Hamas saw how important the release of Gilad Shalit is to Israeli society, they raised the price and took a harder line, Olmert contended, ultimately leading to the failure of the negotiations.
"That's ridiculous and unfair," snapped Brig. Gen. (Res.) Hezi Meshita, who is heading a public ad hoc committee for the release of Gilad Shalit, after Olmert had announced the failure of the talks. "Until recently, the government was dealing with a compliant family who made their lives very easy, so the government didn't do anything. As citizens, we tried everything we could - we appealed to the Red Cross, we made suggestions to the government. But nothing has helped, and so apparently there is no other way to free Gilad other than releasing those prisoners. And Olmert must take responsibility for that."
Author and columnist Meir Shalev, who addressed the protest, was even more blunt. "It has been 1,000 days of empty promises, conflicting statements and lost time. He [Olmert] sent the country to war at the blink of an eye, but with regard to Gilad Shalit he has all the time in the worldâ€¦ There's only one thing that Olmert has been decisive about - pointing an accusatory finger at the Shalit family."
Then, addressing Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu, Shalev warned, "It is customary to give a new prime minister a hundred days of grace. But I tell you, Benjamin Netanyahu, that with regard to Gilad Shalit, we will not give you a hundred days of grace, not a month, not a week, not a day, not an hour."
Tel Aviv University's Bar-Tal, too, is critical of the government, but from a different perspective. He cites what he views as the government's manipulative delegitimization of the Palestinians as a tactic in the negotiating process. "The government and its supporters portray the Palestinians - not just Hamas, but the entire Palestinian people - as a people who lack basic human values, who have no respect for the value of life, which means that we could never negotiate with them. The government says that in the face of the Shalits' pain, Hamas has hardened its position. But that isn't so. They gave a list of the 450 most important prisoners whom they wanted released, and they haven't budged from the very beginning."
Ehud Barak used the same tactics, he accuses, when he was prime minister and the Camp David talks failed. "Then, too, they said it was because the Palestinians weren't willing to negotiate and had hardened their positions. Like Hamas, Arafat was tough, but consistent. But because of the dehumanization of the Palestinians, the government can count on the fact that the Israeli public will believe them and that, since we have no partner, there is no point in making any concessions."
Whether in favor of the release or not, all experts agree that the media played a central role in maintaining pressure on the government to agree to the prisoner deal. Newspapers ran banner headlines marking the days and, over the Purim holiday, displayed pictures of Gilad as a toddler, dressed up in a sad clown costume.
Channel 2 broadcast stark public service messages, with an image of a digital clock marking days, hours, and seconds in sharp white figures against a black screen. On all channels, talk shows brought in supporters and detractors of the deal, but also played to the public's emotions by bringing in, for example, former prisoners of war. "You have to understand," declared Amos Levitov, an air force navigator who was shot down and held prisoner for three and a half years, "knowing that the country will come to save you is the only hope you have."
But journalist and media critic Uzi Benziman, who edits "The Seventh Eye," an e-magazine of media criticism, says that the media is primarily guilty of not being assertive enough. "The media failed at its job because it didn't engage in investigative reporting or in generating a public discussion on its own, but was motivated only when the Shalits took on a public relations firm and began to manipulate the media by providing it with the kind of heart-tugging materials that it likes."
As the deal fell through, the press began to seriously scrutinize the government's handling of the case. Several dailies published extensive investigative articles questioning whether the release of Shalit had been a priority and whether, indeed, the government had done "everything it could have" - from applying pressure on the families of the Palestinian prisoners by denying them regular visits and providing the prisoners with fewer benefits - to planning a daring raid into Gaza. Almost all of the papers have, in the past week, reached the conclusion that the Olmert government had not done all that it could, as the opponents of the deal have long claimed.
At this time, the status of the negotiations remains unclear. Complicating the current situation even further, Egyptian and Palestinian sources insist that the negotiations have not stalled and that Hamas is interested in sealing the deal as soon as possible. But Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's military wing in Cairo, recently declared, "I have no problem holding Shalit for another whole year, [for] as long as Hamas's demands are not met. For us there is no difference between Netanyahu and Olmert. What matters to us are only our demands." And the Israeli media was reporting that Israeli officials might return to Egypt in late March to resume the negotiations and that Olmert, facing mounting criticism, has said in internal meetings that he would continue efforts to bring Shalit home until his last day in office.
Summing up the situation, Attorney Uri Slonim, former adviser to the defense minister for PoWs and MIAs, said in a TV interview at the end of the turbulent week, "Some of the things that were done at the end [of the negotiations] should have been done at the beginning. Every leader who even begins to negotiate a prisoner exchange deal knows that in the end, he will have to release prisoners who are potentially dangerous. There really is no difference between 10 or 1,000 terrorists. The damage that they have done - has been done. The damage that they may do in the future - has not yet been done and perhaps can be prevented. But in the meantime, there is a young boy in captivity in Gaza, and he is still alive." â€¢
Cover story in Issue 26, April 13, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.
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