People of the year: The war in Lebanon

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September 21, 2006 11:08
People of the year: The war in Lebanon

regev goldwasser shalit . (photo credit: Channel 10 and tovah lazaroff reproduction)

 
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At what price?

Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev By Larry Derfner It is difficult for Israelis, and not only Olmert, to admit that the kidnappers have the country over a barrel

The families of the three kidnapped IDF soldiers - Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - are all convinced that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is willing to free Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners to get the soldiers back.

"Everyone in Israel knows we have to release prisoners to free the soldiers, it's just that politicians have to make certain kinds of statements to the media," said Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, in an interview at the Ambassador Hotel in east Jerusalem following a news conference before the Arab media in which he appealed to Hizbullah to release his son in the name of "the Islamic value of generosity to prisoners."

Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Ehud, noted in a telephone interview that when he joined the families of the other kidnapped soldiers at a September 7 meeting with Olmert, the prime minister "did not utter the term 'unconditional release,'" which was Israel's demand of the kidnappers following Shalit's capture on the Gazan border by Palestinian guerrillas on June 25, and Hizbullah's kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev on July 12.

Benny Regev, brother of Eldad, said over the phone that during the families' meeting with Olmert in his Tel Aviv office, the prime minister "said he was prepared to negotiate [for the soldiers' release]. This means he's ready to give up prisoners."

Yet an official in the Prime Minister's Office, when asked whether Olmert was actually sticking to his stated policy of no negotiations and no prisoner exchanges for the kidnapped soldiers, replied, "The policy remains unconditional release. It means exactly what it sounds like. That's what the policy was and that's what it is."

Maybe. But it's hard not to have a sneaking suspicion that such a statement, as Noam Shalit says, is for media consumption, or to broadcast a tough negotiating stance to the kidnappers, but that in fact the government is prepared to trade prisoners with terrorists - if it isn't already negotiating with the kidnappers, either directly or through third parties. Olmert has appointed former deputy Shin Bet chief Ofer Dekel to handle the matter of the soldiers' "return," so he must be talking about something with somebody.

Olmert's original idea, or at least the one he put forward in his resolute-sounding speeches during the summer, was seemingly that the IDF would pound the Palestinians and Lebanese so relentlessly that the kidnappers would be forced to give up the three soldiers and beg, or sue, for peace.

In the martial mood of those early weeks, it seemed to many Israelis a feasible policy. Gilad Regev's older brother Benny, 34, an accountant from Kiyrat Motzkin, was one of them. "I hoped that the war would bring their release," he says.

But neither Shlomo Goldwasser, 59, a merchant seaman from Nahariya, nor Noam Shalit, 52, an accountant from the Galilee community of Mitzpe Hila, ever bought the official line.

"When, at the beginning, he used the term 'unconditional release,' I was shocked," said Goldwasser. "I knew it wasn't doable, and that it left the kidnappers no incentive to keep them alive - if they're not getting anything in return for the hostages, why should they keep them alive?

"I didn't delude myself that military action could free them," he continues. "I had some hope that after the war ended there would be negotiations and an exchange - all wars in the past ended with prisoner exchanges - but that didn't happen."

As far as Shalit is concerned, Olmert is hedging on a commitment he made during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman a couple of weeks before Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. "Olmert said he'll free prisoners as a humanitarian gesture for the holidays [the month of Ramadan, beginning September 24, culminating in Id el Fitr October 24]. Here is his opportunity."

AFTER SHALIT'S kidnapping, and especially after Regev's and Goldwasser's kidnappings two weeks later, there seemed to be a consensus that Israel had been too desperate in the past to get its hostages back, and the result had been: 1) that too many terrorists had been released from prison only to return to their bloody work; and 2) the promise of the wholesale release of prisoners acted as an invitation from Israel to the enemy to commit further kidnappings. This consensus was echoed in Olmert's early vow not to negotiate for the release of the three soldiers, and to accept only unconditional release.

As the war dragged on, though, and the three soldiers remained in captivity - and with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal both insisting that Israel would never see the trio without freeing Palestinian and Lebanese security prisoners in return - the hardline consensus seemed to weaken.

But with the three soldiers and their families constantly in the national spotlight, this was inevitable. It is impossible for the government to stand pat and wait for a telephone call from Nasrallah's and Meshal's representatives, knowing that it will probably never come, when the plight of the three soldiers and their families is uppermost in the nation's collective mind.

Kofi Annan, Tony Blair and Jesse Jackson are just a few of the international dignitaries who have met with the families on their visits to Israel. The two family members who've gained the highest profiles are Noam Shalit, who described his religious appeal to the kidnappers as an exercise in "alternative action" to free the hostages, and Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud's wife, whose articulateness and engaging personality has kept her busy abroad making public appeals for the soldiers' release.

Still, it is difficult for Israelis, and not only Olmert, to admit that the kidnappers have the country over a barrel, and that the country is going to have to pay a heavy price to get its hostages back. An illustration of this uneasiness came at the rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on August 31, when 60,000 people joined the families of the kidnapped soldiers to demand that the government bring them home.

However, there was no agreed-upon demand as to how the government should achieve that. There was no demand that the government release enemy prisoners to get them back - probably because not all the 60,000 protesters, not to mention the nation at large, are comfortable about saying that. It broadcasts a willingness to "give in" to blackmail, to award a "prize for terror."

Asked why, if the three families were united in urging a prisoner release to win the three soldiers' freedom, the Rabin Square rally didn't make that its explicit demand, Goldwasser replied that during preparations for the event, "The issue of a single slogan didn't arise. The message we sent to Olmert was that people want a resolution of this crisis. How to achieve it is the government's decision."

It is an extremely difficult one. In the past, when Israeli governments released Arab prisoners to get back Israeli POWs or kidnapped soldiers, the deals were made with Arab states after a cease-fire had been reached to conclude a war, or, if the deals were made with terrorist groups, they came at least a year after the Israelis had been captured.

Never has Israel given in to demands to release enemy prisoners immediately after a kidnapping - as was demanded following the capture of Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev. Official thinking is that to give in to kidnappers' demands immediately would be too blatant a reward to the terrorists, too generous an invitation to kidnap again. On occasion, this refusal to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners ended with a successful Israeli commando raid that killed the kidnappers and freed the hostages, such as at Entebbe and in the Bus 300 capture.

Other times, though, the refusal ended with the kidnappers killing the hostages, such as at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Ma'alot massacre (1974), and the attempted rescue of Nachshon Wachsman (1994).

This defiant posture has at times been mistaken for the standard Israeli policy, and that dealing with terrorists has been a deviation from it. Barbara Walters, in her question about the Iranian hostage crisis to 1980 presidential debaters Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, alluded to this Israeli reputation. "Other countries have policies that determine how they will respond. Israel, for example, considers hostages like soldiers and will not negotiate with terrorists," Walters reminded the candidates.

BUT SHE was wrong. In mid-1979, Israel released 75 Lebanese guerrillas in exchange for an IDF soldier who had been captured during the Litani operation a year before. And Walters would be proven wrong even more dramatically in the years that followed.

Critics of Israel's willingness to execute a deal for the release of kidnapped soldiers commonly point to the 1985 "Jibril deal" as the original sin. On May 20 of that year, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners, including Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to Palestinian terrorist commander Ahmed Jibril in return for three IDF soldiers captured early in the Lebanon War.

However, in the year before that, Israel released 291 Syrian soldiers and 13 Syrian civilians captured during the war, as well as the remains of 74 Syrian soldiers in return for three IDF soldiers, three Israeli civilians and the remains of five soldiers.

And in the year before that, 1983, Israel traded 4,700 Palestinian prisoners to Fatah in return for six IDF soldiers.

Later, of course, Israel would release Yassin a second time in return for the two Mossad agents imprisoned in Amman after their botched attempt to assassinate Meshal - a decision that embittered the Wachsman family, which had implored prime minister Yitzhak Rabin three years earlier to release Yassin before their son was killed, along with commando Nir Poraz, in the failed raid.

And in 2004, there followed what is widely considered the least successful prisoners-for-hostage swap Israel ever made: giving Nasrallah 436 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of the highly dubious businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum, as well as the remains of three IDF soldiers. The move turned Nasrallah into an even greater hero than he already was.

"We didn't invent the idea of releasing prisoners," noted Noam Shalit.

THE WEIGHING of the lives of kidnapped Israelis vs. the safety of Israelis at large doesn't seem an easy task for the families, either. While they urge the government to take the humane view and negotiate for the release of the three soldiers, they all criticized the government for agreeing to lift the embargo on Lebanon - a measure aimed at keeping the cease-fire from breaking down - because it could allow the kidnappers of Goldwasser and Regev to spirit them out of Lebanon - if that's where they're still being held. And Benny Regev not only criticized the lifting of the embargo but also the acceptance of the cease-fire. because Olmert didn't insist on immediate implementation of the clause calling for the soldiers' unconditional release.

To those who say Israel should enter peace negotiations with Syria as a means of winning Goldwasser's and Regev's release, Shlomo Goldwasser is all for it.

"I don't think acts of war can free prisoners. If it will help get them back, I'm in favor of negotiations with Syria, with the Pope, with anyone," Goldwasser said.

And to those who say Israel should negotiate with a Palestinian government including Hamas to win Shalit's release, Noam Shalit says this amounts to putting the horse before the cart.

"There will be no Palestinian unity government as long as an Israeli soldier is being held in Palestinian territory," Shalit said, noting that his son's captivity is a divisive issue between the leadership of Hamas and Abbas, and that it is keeping the PA isolated from Israel and the Western world.

As for having confidence in the Israeli government's willingness and ability to make the deal to bring the kidnapped soldiers home, representatives of the three families express somewhat differing opinions.

"Yes, I have confidence," said Shlomo Goldwasser. "I believe that things are being done. The prime minister appointed a very trustworthy individual in Ofer Dekel, and I know that he's trying."

Benny Regev sounded more reserved, "I have faith in the government's desire to find a solution, but we saw twice already, with the cease-fire and the lifting of the embargo, that they didn't stand by their commitment."

And Noam Shalit said, "I hope that they're doing everything they can."

Hear, O Israel

Ro'i Klein By Yaakov Katz On July 26, Maj. Ro'i Klein, deputy commander of Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, was killed during fighting with Hizbullah guerrillas in the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbail. On the same day a legend was born, one that senior IDF officers claim will become part of military heritage for generations to come. This is Klein's story: It was supposed to be another raid into a southern Lebanese village. Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade entered Bint Jbail on Sunday July 23 and took up positions on the outskirts of the town, the same place where Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivered a victory speech following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The first two days in the village passed fairly quietly. The battalion, commanded by Lt.-Col. Yaniv Asor, killed four Hizbullah guerrillas as they maintained positions along the town's outer edge. "Following the first day of fighting we were very confident," Asor told The Jerusalem Post, recalling the feeling among his troops in the first days of the war. But then on Wednesday morning everything went wrong. At 3 a.m., Asor received orders to sweep into the town, not for a pinpointed raid but to conquer. The battalion split into two groups - Asor led Company A and Klein, his deputy, took charge of Company C. As the soldiers began taking up positions inside homes in the center of the town, Klein's men spotted a number of Hizbullah guerrillas moving towards them. One of the soldiers, Evyatar Cohen, nicknamed "Red," opened fire. Lt. Amichai Merhavia, a squadron commander, took two soldiers and charged the guerrillas, hiding behind a nearby wall. The gunmen threw grenades at the soldiers. Merhavia and two others were killed. Meanwhile, Klein was inside a home adjacent to the wall from where he was in touch with Asor and issuing orders to the other squads. Understanding that Company C had walked straight into an ambush, Klein sprinted out of the house, went to the nearby wall and began overseeing the evacuation of the dead and the wounded while firing and throwing grenades in the direction of the Hizbullah gunmen. Then came the Hizbullah grenade. It landed next to Klein, a father of two children from the settlement of Eli. According to soldiers who witnessed the incident, Klein, with only a split-second to think, jumped on the grenade, threw his body over it and absorbed the blast thereby saving the lives of his soldiers. In his last seconds of life, Klein mustered the strength to shout "Shema Yisrael," the prayer declared by Jewish martyrs throughout the generations. Alongside Klein, seven other soldiers from the battalion were killed during the battle of Bint Jbail. Klein was buried the next day, on his 31st birthday. "He was an unbelievable person," Asor says. "He had a multi-faceted personality and lived several lives all in harmony with one another." Klein, Asor said, was an enthusiastic saxophone and piano player and was also an observant Orthodox Jew who "never compromised his beliefs." According to Asor, who has recently been appointed commander of the elite Egoz unit, while Battalion 51 suffered heavy losses, it never stopped fighting during the war. "The battalion has energies and does not break down," he said. "We went in there knowing that it would be difficult and dangerous but that was our job and this was a war." Klein's story, he said, would go down in military history as one of the few cases when a commander sacrificed his life for others. "His persona came alive in that one incident," Asor said of his former deputy and friend. "He was a brave and focused commander and at the same time his love for the soldiers was the source of his motivation."

Richly deserved relief

Arkadi Gaydamak By Ruthie Blum Mega-celebrity and controversial philanthropist Arkadi Gaydamak made an even bigger splash than usual during the recent war in Lebanon. Putting his money - $15 million of it - where everybody else's mouth was, the 54-year-old Russian billionaire moved into swift action during the Katyusha bombardment, and constructed a tent village on the beach of Nitzanim for thousands of families from the North. The unparalleled relief operation will be remembered for years to come. Not that Gaydamak was in much danger of being forgotten any time soon. Since his arrival in Israel a little over six years ago from France, he has become a household name, both for his grandstand largesse and for his ongoing legal problems. A sponsor of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team, a contributor to the Bnei Sakhnin soccer club and the owner of Betar Jerusalem, he is also a major donor to many worthy organizations, among them Magen David Adom. The president of the Russian Jewish Congress, he was preparing to make a $50 million donation to the Jewish Agency in exchange for a seat on its board, when the Israel Police stopped the process and began an investigation into suspicions of money-laundering involving Bank Hapoalim. This has been part of a wider attempt to assist the French authorities, from whom he fled in 2000, following their issuing of an arrest warrant for illegal arms dealing with Angola and tax evasion. Gaydamak continues to profess his innocence, accusing local law enforcement agencies of unjustly targeting and harassing him. In a recent interview Gaydamak attributes what he considers to be undeserved infamy to envy of wealth in general, and to mistrust of rich Russians in particular. "Imagine a couple sitting at home eating their soup in front of the TV," he elaborates. "The wife sees me and blames her husband for not earning enough money to provide her the kind of lifestyle she craves. The husband then says, 'Look, maybe I'm not rich like this guy, but at least I'm honest.' In other words, I'm the kind of man people need subconsciously to consider bad." Perhaps, but since the war, a lot more people seem to be considering him good.

Be prepared

Prof. Shaul M. Shasha Dan Izenberg When the Vinograd Committee and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus complete their reports and reveal the woeful state of preparedness in the government, the army and most local authorities for last summer's war against Hizbullah, they will find at least one shining exception. On July 12, the day the war began, the Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya had already moved its patients underground and out of danger. The hospital, led by its director, Prof. Shaul M. Shasha, had been preparing for war for the past 10 years. "The hospital has always been a confrontation line hospital," Shasha told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week. "It is located 10 kilometers from the border and has always been in rocket range. Therefore, we have always tried to see how we could operate under fire." During those 10 years, including long after Israeli troops withdrew from the south Lebanese security zone and most of us tried to forget about the Hizbullah threat, Shasha and his staff prepared the hospital for the possibility of another war. "First of all," he recalled, "we prepared work directives for an emergency situation which took into account the direction from which the Katyushas would strike. Second, we prepared protected spaces in the hospital. All of the new construction in that period took into account the possibility of an attack from Lebanese territory. Third, we drilled our staff day and night in the emergency procedures." When war did come, the hospital was ready. As fate would have it, Shasha flew to Munich on July 12. Half an hour after landing in Germany, he received a phone call updating him on the fact that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped. Shasha asked whether he should take the next plane back, but was advised to wait a day. In the meantime, the war erupted and Shasha's deputy Dr. Moshe Daniel decided to put the emergency regulations into operation. Within one hour, half an hour less than the prescribed time, every patient in the hospital had been transferred to a protected space. The hospital was able to accommodate 600 patients in well-protected wards, some of which are underground. All wards are safe from conventional weapons and some are also protected from chemical and bacteriological warfare. During these years, the hospital has also built eight state-of-the-art operation rooms, all of which are protected from conventional, chemical and bacteriological weapons. "We developed a reputation for being nuts," said Shasha. "But for us, it paid off fantastically." Although many Katyushas fell around the hospital complex during the war, only one actually hit a building, on Friday, July 28 at 4:30 p.m. That rocket, however, destroyed two patients' rooms in the ophthalmology ward and caused heavy damage to the entire floor. "Had the rooms been occupied, at least six patients would likely have been killed," said Shasha. Now, more than a month after the end of the fighting, Shasha is busy supervising hospital repairs and preparing for the future. The hospital has conducted inquiries on a departmental and institutional level to determine the strong and weak points of the wartime strategy. They are currently renovating the ophthalmology ward, which is a world leader in cornea transplants, and they are also repainting the underground wards, improving the air conditioning system and looking for more protected spaces to increase capacity. Shasha insisted that the credit for the hospital's success be distributed fairly. The Health Ministry contributed advice and money for the hospital construction and the hospital executive helped in the planning. Above all, said Shasha, credit should go to the hospital management and staff of 2,000. During the month of fighting, only 12 people failed to show up for work. All the rest had to face the dangers of driving home and back to work at all hours of the day and night on roads that were always exposed to the rockets. The hospital staff, he said, includes Jews, Arabs, Druse, Muslims and others. "The moment they pass the hospital gate, the arguments stop, there is no left, no right, no Jews and no Arabs. There was only one team. And that was inspiring."

The spirit of volunteerism

The volunteers By Greer Fay Cashman Notwithstanding the dark cloud following the war in Lebanon, one valiant ray of humanity did emerge - the basic good-heartedness and generosity of the people of Israel. There was hardly a sector of the population that was not engaged in one way or another in efforts to provide relief for communities in the North. Ad hoc groups sprouted overnight to organize collections and deliveries of food, games, books, television sets, computers, medications and more to bomb shelters. Additionally, busloads of entertainers boosted morale, including high-profile musician David Broza, who was just one of many Israeli entertainers who cancelled summer schedules to tour the multiple bomb shelters in their mission to bring cheer to as many people as possible on any given day. And the Yiddishpiel ensemble, realizing that many elderly people in shelters were Holocaust survivors who might be reliving past traumas, got them to join in community singsongs in Yiddish and Russian. The experiment was so successful that Yiddishpiel has decided to include community singing in its regular activities. Israelis are marvelous when it comes to volunteerism, says Dudi Zilbershlag, the founder, with his wife, Rivka, of Meir Panim, an organization that supplies food, clothing and used furniture to the needy. "There are many more volunteers in ratio to the overall population in Israel than there are in the United States," adds Zilbershlag who is also vice chairman of the National Council for Volunteerism, and who recently took over the chairmanship of ZAKA, the identification and rapid rescue motorcycle unit, to save it from bankruptcy. Meir Panim's national network has branches throughout the North, which enabled assessment of immediate needs. Zilbershlag quickly realized that other volunteer efforts would overwhelmingly be directed northwards, and without any coordinating umbrella, this could lead to chaos. When organizing aid for Tsunami victims two years ago, Zilbershlag had brought together several organizations dedicated to humanitarian objectives regardless of geography. Similarly, when he became involved with the Wisconsin program, he also worked with other organizations to provide training for the unemployed so that they would be better equipped to find jobs. "Through these two experiences, I realized the value of coalitions," says Zilbershlag. Thus, when war erupted, one of his first thoughts was to bring together a number of organizations with the aim of pooling resources and reducing duplication. But even before that, he needed money for food for the hungry. He contacted philanthropist Arkadi Gaydamak, who regardless of the millions that he shelled out for his tent city in Nitzanim, gave Zilbershlag NIS 1.5 m. Having worked in the past with Israel Discount Bank Chairman Nochi Dankner, Zilbershlag was certain that here too, he would find a helping hand. Dankner unhesitatingly gave him half a million shekels and immediately agreed to recruit companies within the IDB group. Zilbershlag also sounded Dankner out on putting together a coalition of social welfare organizations, emphasizing that they would have to be united under a generic name such as Yisrael Beyahad ("Israel Together"). Zilbershlag promptly called the Joint Distribution Committee, Natal (the Israel Trauma Center headed by Yehudit Yovel Recanati), Ruach Tova (headed by former MK Rafi Elul), Amidar, Table to Table and many other non-profit organizations. In the final analysis, the coalition numbered 62 organizations that worked together in an efficient division of labor. Zilbershlag was initially reluctant to deal with medications because there were so many of them and not all were available without prescriptions, but pharmaceutical companies were exceedingly generous in making medications and first-aid kits available free of charge. In addition, a group of 700 Jewish pharmacists in France who are running a pilot project in Israel to help out people who cannot afford expensive medications, diverted their efforts to the confrontation line. "We had 4,770 requests for medications, and ZAKA delivered them all," says Zilbershlag. It has to be remembered, notes Zilbershlag, that all the volunteer efforts in the North were taking place under threat of Katyushas and even while Katyushas were falling. In all, the umbrella organization, Yisrael Beyahad, working in coordination with the Prime Minister's Office, handled 226,000 requests for aid. Of these 7,600 were for food - in addition to the 6,700 hot meals per day that the coalition provided in the early days of the war. There were also 24,600 requests for hospitality for evacuees or would-be evacuees, but in this Yisrael Beyahad was less successful and found alternative accommodation for only 6,600 of the applicants. Most were in private homes in other parts of the country, but several hotels also provided rooms free of charge. The Novotel chain, for instance, donated 1,500 rooms. There were also organizations outside the coalition that helped with accommodation placements, and many families did it themselves by advertising on the Internet. What was truly amazing was the number of households that took in families large and small that they had never met before, as a result of which new friendships were made between both adults and children. Insofar as provisions were concerned, the business sector contributed an enormous variety of products ranging from air conditioners to mattresses, toys and games, food and other necessities. Some companies acted spontaneously. Others were contacted by Yisrael Beyahad. Looking at the whole picture, Zilbershlag says that this spirit of volunteerism was what should be remembered from the war. "It was something in which we can all take pride."

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