Aviva Schalit: There's no price for soldier's life

Aviva Schalit addresses a crowd of supporters at a rally marking her son's third birthday in captivity.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On her son's 22nd birthday Thursday, Aviva Schalit did not bake a cake or blow up balloons and place them in his room as she might have in years past. Instead she found herself talking to the crowd of supporters who gathered in the family's hometown of Mitzpe Hila, in the Upper Galilee, to mark St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit's third birthday in captivity. There were no flowers to arrange and no presents to buy, she said. For Gilad, who is being held by Hamas in Gaza, it was just one more day spent in captivity, alone in the dark, in an airless room without a window. "I didn't deliberate over what he would want or when to congratulate him," she said. Instead she wrote down this plea: "I asked just one thing, 'Giladi, be strong, in the way that you know to be, and don't break. Think all the time that we are with you and advocating for you, and that we will get you out of there." Standing behind Gilad, she said, was a wide circle of family, friends and citizens from all across the nation who had rallied to his cause. "You don't deserve to spend 800 long days and nights in this prison, in this nightmare," Aviva said. "You don't deserve to spend a third year in this terrible captivity." While the nation was working for his release, she said, she felt that the politicians were busy worrying about themselves. "But I say here, on your birthday, next to your house, there is no price that can be set on a child, a child who we brought up and educated here in the Land of Israel to love his nation and to serve it, a child who we sent to serve in the army and to defend that nation. We did so as a result of and on behalf of the principles on which we were raised. There is no price [that can be set on] the life of a soldier who was sent by his nation to serve and fell in that mission," she said. To the politicians, to those who didn't want to pay a high price for the life of a soldier in captivity, or who want to reduce that price, she said, "You had all the time in the world, to do it." She quoted Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who once declared, "A nation that forgets its soldiers will find itself forgotten by its soldiers." The grieving mother spoke ahead of Sunday's meeting of a ministerial committee established to consider showing more flexibility regarding which security prisoners to release in exchange for Gilad. The committee is headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who is joined by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon. Ramon, Ayalon and Dichter have all indicated a willingness in recent weeks to release more dangerous prisoners to win the release of Schalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas just inside Israel at the Gaza border in June 2006. Israel has reportedly approved some 70 names from a list presented by Hamas. The terrorist group is reportedly demanding that about 450 prisoners be released for Schalit. The ministers are expected to talk on Sunday about changing the criteria governing prisoner releases to move forward the Schalit deal. This committee drew up the criteria that led to the release this week of 198 security prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, including two murderers - men with "blood on their hands." In 2002 the cabinet decided there would be no early releases of prisoners with "blood on their hands," a definition that included not only those who personally detonated the explosives or pulled the trigger in attacks in which people were murdered or wounded, but also those who dispatched or otherwise aided and abetted them. One political source said that one might infer that there was a reason why the committee members were meeting now to determine criteria for a Schalit deal. Still, defense officials said there had not been any progress in the Schalit negotiations in recent weeks. Following the swap with Hizbullah last month for the corpses of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, Israel had hoped to immediately renew negotiations with Hamas and speed up Schalit's release. Ofer Dekel, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), traveled to Egypt to restart the negotiations, but Hamas refused and instead upped its demands. During Defense Minister Ehud Barak's visit to Alexandria this week, the Egyptians placed the blame for the standstill in the talks on Israel. The Egyptians said that the high price Israel paid in the swap with Hizbullah in July - under which Israel released Samir Kuntar, four Hizbullah fighters and 200 dead combatants in exchange for the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser - had motivated Hamas to increase its own demands. Barak had hoped to return with the news of renewed negotiations as a sort of birthday present for Schalit. On Thursday afternoon Schalit's father, Noam, told The Jerusalem Post he was still waiting to hear from Barak. He had met with Barak before he left for Egypt. "He promised he would update us, but we are still waiting," Noam said. Last week, Noam said, he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and walked away with the feeling that nothing had changed. At the meeting in Olmert's Jerusalem office, he begged Olmert to bring his son home before he left office, Noam said. Olmert replied that he was doing all he could, Noam said, but he took no comfort in the prime minister's words. Nor did he feel any optimism upon hearing that the ministerial committee was set to meet. "We have a feeling that nothing is advancing," he said. He worried that the committee meeting gave a false appearance of movement. The government had failed during the last three years to reach out to the family, and most of the meetings and conversations had come about in response to the family's initiatives, Noam said. The only exception was a staff member who worked with negotiator Dekel, he added. Noam Schalit and his family have been buoyed by the outpouring of public support, including those who gathered Thursday night in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and then marched to Kikar Rabin demanding Gilad's release. On Wednesday, a small group of friends and supporters gathered along the Gaza border and held a rally close to the spot where Gilad was captured in 2006. But Noam fears that the government has tired of the matter. "They have gotten used to the fact that Gilad is in captivity," he said. Even Hamas now believes the issue of prisoner releases pales in comparison to other matters, he said. For Hamas, his son's release was now priority three or four." As the time spent in captivity grows, so does the fear that his son might not return. "Time is not working in our favor," Noam Schalit said. Also present to speak to those assembled at Mitzpe Hila was Miki Goldwasser, whose son Ehud killed in a botched kidnapping attempt in July 2006, but whose fate was only known last month when Hizbullah returned his body. Goldwasser has since promised to battle for Gilad's return in the same way that she fought for her son Ehud. She told Gilad's friends and family that she is not the only one who has taken him into her heart, even though she has never met him. Addressing Gilad as if he was there, she said, "Gilad, you are no longer your mother and father's private child. You now belong to all the mothers and fathers in Israel. You don't know this Gilad, but you have been transformed into the image that stands out in the mind of every mother whose son serves into the army or is about to drafted." "What happened to you could happen to anyone who serves," said Goldwasser. "These soldiers have aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, all of whom are asking in one voice that has turned into a thunderous roar, why has Gilad not returned? "How can it be that we are celebrating your birthday for already the third time without you. How can it be that you are so close and yet so far," said Goldwasser. "Where is the loyalty of a nation to its sons?" she asked. In light of the coming Ramadan holiday, she said, there is an additional opportunity to pressure Hamas to make a deal to return their own sons, held in Israeli jails. "The pressure on the Gaza streets, on the leadership and on Hamas is growing," said Goldwasser. Just as she did at a rally on Wednesday, she called on the politicians to "stop for a moment, their crazy race to the primaries." They should pause and recall why it is that they are in government to begin with and then they will understand that releasing Schalit is of the highest national order. If those who are running for the primaries can't find a way to free him, "then they are not worthy." If they want to prove that they are worthy to govern then they should find a way to bring Gilad home.