(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
Every war has its heroes. Many stories caught the public's imagination during the war in the South, still known formally as Operation Cast Lead. There was the father of a soldier killed by "friendly fire" who took time out from his mourning to tell his son's comrades that they weren't the ones responsible for his death; there were the young men called up days after their weddings and critically wounded, whose families and brides pledged they would recover (and who indeed have made remarkable progress).
During the campaign, I watched a TV interview with IAF pilots who were asked how they dealt with the world criticism of war crimes. One answered that he knew that every measure had been taken to prevent civilian casualties; another quoted a friend saying that he had no problem fighting until it was safe for him and his family to visit Sderot. He stressed the word "family": Many ordinary people have shown their support by visiting the Kassam-hit town, but far fewer are willing to take their kids with them. The war, indeed, is not yet over.
There are living legends and dead heroes. And there are those caught in between, in a hellish limbo. One of these is Gilad Schalit, in Hamas captivity so long that his comrades have been released from the regular army. One of these peers voiced a poignant thought at the height of the operation, telling an Israel Radio reporter that he was haunted by the idea that Schalit was sitting somewhere in Gaza where he could hear the fighting and knew the Israeli forces were nearby. And then the noise stopped. What was Schalit to conclude? That the IDF had been close enough to rescue him - and now it had gone and he is again, after two and a half years, the only Israeli soldier left in Gaza.
Of course we can't know what Schalit is thinking. Who can imagine what it is like for a captive to be held day after day, cut off from every semblance of normal life? In 1984, I attended the welcome-home party of Yohanan Alon, a prisoner of war returning after two years in a Syrian jail. I recall the crowded living room in Acre where a family was celebrating what was essentially a rebirth. But the image that stands out was how the soldier was not so much pale as translucent, deprived of sunlight his entire time in captivity.
We don't even know what Schalit's parents are thinking, despite the fact that they regularly talk to the press and struggle to keep their son's name in the public's mind and decision-makers' consciences. Mercifully few people know what Noam and Aviva Schalit are going through, and even they find it hard to offer words of comfort. One of them is Yona Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel missing along with two other IDF soldiers - Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman - since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in June 1982. Yona attends my parents' synagogue, when health permits. What he prays for is obvious: Closure. In the past he has said he has reason to believe, albeit a faint hope, that his son is still alive, and probably being held in Syria. The IDF has never been able to prove that the Sultan Yakoub Three were killed.
In the Oslo process, Yasser Arafat handed over half of Zachary Baumel's dog tag. But the "process" went on without Baumel's return, or even knowledge of whether he was alive or dead.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began indirect peace negotiations with Syria, without, as far as can be seen, demanding even basic information on the missing soldiers. The "peace process" with Mahmoud Abbas has followed the road map halfway around the world, to Annapolis and back, without a mention of the MIAs from the First Lebanon War, or navigator Ron Arad, missing since 1986, or Guy Hever, who disappeared near the Syrian border in 1997.
Last week, the security cabinet, headed by Olmert, decided unanimously not to accept a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip before Schalit is released. Hamas reportedly called the decision "a stab in the back to the Egyptian efforts" to broker a truce, although the previous truces - and there have been many - have not been cease-fires so much as "reduced-fires."
Hamas officials in Damascus also said Schalit "will not see light of day" until its prisoners in Israel are released. I remember the sun-starved pallor of a POW just back from Syria and this I can believe.
So what can be done?
Yona Baumel has several times suggested that until Israel receives information on its missing soldiers, it should halt Red Cross visits to Hamas prisoners - terrorist murderers who far from rotting in dark cells pass the time praying, playing backgammon and exercising in the yard, looking forward not only to Red Cross care packages but to family visits.
The proud IDF tradition has been never to abandon a comrade in the field of battle. At a meeting marking the Battle of Sultan Yakoub last June at Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue, where the Baumels pray, Hezi Shai, who was also captured in the battle and, like Alon, held captive in Syria until 1984, stressed: "The belief that the government was doing everything to bring me home gave me strength during my two years in captivity."
Israelis periodically discuss "the price" of a "prisoner exchange" - a term in itself a distortion, for if the Israelis are prisoners, who is guaranteeing their rights? This is not some kind of intellectual exercise. Unlike the Prisoners' Dilemma taught in game theory courses, this is neither theoretical nor a game.
Almost every Israeli can think of a soldier who has already paid the highest price for service to his country; a bereaved family whose loved one was killed by the same unrepentant terrorists whose release is being demanded. Nearly everyone knows a soldier who is currently serving in the army, or periodically called up for reserve duty, or a child growing up incredibly quickly who will be conscripted.
In this situation, no one person has the right to determine what should be done, because we are all equally at risk. Does a bereaved parent have more of a say than one whose child came safely home? A friend who lost his sister in a terror attack once confessed to me he had made a huge effort not to follow the trial and eventual sentencing because he didn't want to have to think about when and how the killer was going to be released.
One thing is for sure, once Schalit is safely back home, Israel needs to draw up a policy on the release of abducted soldiers - and stick to it. And no diplomatic process should be considered complete if it does not include the return of the MIAs.
Ultimately Gilad Schalit is merely the human face of the current hostilities. It could have been anyone. For it is not Schalit that Hamas wants to hold hostage: It is the whole country.
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