An Impossible Dilemma (Extract)

Unless there are major changes of attitude by Israel, Hamas or both, a deal for the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit seems highly unlikely at this point

19hamas (photo credit: AFP)
(photo credit: AFP)
Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On a bright winter day in mid-December,two women in a large white canvas booth are carrying on a quiet vigil for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It is the 88th day of the quiet protest outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. Just outside the booth, three cards on a makeshift wooden stand making up the number 900 rustle in the cold Jerusalem wind: It is Shalit's 900th day in captivity and pressure on the government to bring about his release is growing. The emphasis on numbers and the passage of time suggests that people are losing patience. A weatherbeaten handwritten poster from over a week ago, its ink smudged by rain, reads: "Olmert: Gilad Shalit is your responsibility - 888 days - It's a disgrace." And a big banner stretched taut across the wall behind the booth exhorts, "Bring Gilad Shalit back now!" On the other side of the booth, against a red background, young children have made drawings of hands lunging desperately for freedom. In the booth, under a large poster of Shalit, Hadas from Pardes Hanna and Sarit from Kiryat Anavim are signing up passersby on a petition in favor of the release of hundreds of Hamas terrorists in return for the captured soldier. The booth is manned from seven in the morning till ten at night every day by volunteers from all over the country, who do two-hour shifts once or twice a month. Dressed warmly in a thick woolen sweater, her gloved hands around a warm cup of coffee, Hadas says, "Even if our protest only helps the Shalit family feel that it is not alone, that, for me, is something." Some of the passersby argue that the protest only raises the price for Shalit's release by showing Hamas just how vulnerable Israeli society is to terrorist extortion. A few days earlier Defense Minister Ehud Barak made the very same argument. Hadas is not impressed. "In that case, I say to the government, free Gilad as soon as possible, so that the price won't get any higher," she declares. "There is no such thing as a high price," Sarit interjects. "We sent those soldiers to the front line, so we must bring them back at any price, no matter what." The protest vigil outside the prime minister's residence is just one instance of a new wave of public pressure on the government to secure Shalit's release. In September, 20 leading novelists and poets wrote a letter to the prime minister arguing that releasing captive soldiers was an intrinsic value that took precedence over price. In October, the Kibbutz Movement's special projects branch teamed up with social organizations, teachers and students as well as soldiers who had served with Shalit to form a joint action committee to coordinate events and demonstrations for Shalit's release. And in November, Shalit posters began appearing all over the country, including one of the soft-faced 22-year-old on a gigantic billboard near Tel Aviv's Gelilot junction. The government, however, faces an almost impossible dilemma. According to the experts, there would be virtually no chance of mounting a successful military operation to rescue Shalit, even if his whereabouts in Gaza could be pinpointed. That means his release can only be secured through an exchange deal with Hamas. But Hamas is demanding no less than 1,400 convicted terrorists, many of whom were involved in the worst terrorist outrages of the second intifada. According to well-placed Israeli sources, the Hamas list is made up of 450 arch-terrorists the organization itself insists on naming; 550 individuals that Israel would name, but for whom Hamas would set the minimal criteria; and 400 women, minors and sick prisoners. The problem, the sources say, is not the numbers - Israel currently holds over 11,000 Palestinian prisoners - but the bloodcurdling crimes committed by the specific terrorists on the list and the threat to Israeli lives they would pose if released. For example, the Hamas 450 include the planner/handlers of the bombers involved in the suicide attacks at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium in which 21 people were killed; the Jerusalem Sbarro pizza parlor where 15 died; Moment Café in Jerusalem, which left 11 dead; Park Hotel, Netanya with 30 killed; Matza Café, Haifa, 15 dead; and the Frank Sinatra cafeteria Hebrew University bombing, which left 9 dead - not to mention dozens of lethal bus bombings and shopping mall attacks during the intifada years, from 2001 to 2004. Israel has drawn up its own list of 450, including many with "blood on their hands," but Hamas is sticking to its original demands and the negotiations have been deadlocked for months, as both sides refuse to budge. As the frustration mounts, feelings in Israel are running high. In mid-December, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ran into a hail of criticism when, without spelling it out, she tried to convey the government's dilemma. "Of course we want to bring back every captured Israeli soldier. But this is not always possible," she told high school students in Tel Aviv. This led to angry demonstrations outside her home in Tel Aviv and to accusations that the government was abandoning Shalit. Defense Minister Ehud Barak joined the anti-Livni chorus. "It was on this government's watch that Gilad was sent on his mission, and it has a special responsibility to act decisively to bring him home before its term ends… We will have to make some difficult decisions, decisions that are not without risk, before getting Shalit back, but I am willing to make those decisions to ensure his safe return," he declared. Livni's people claimed she was trying to tell the country the truth and accused Barak of mouthing empty platitudes. And with elections less than two months away, both leaders accused the other of using the captured soldier's plight to make political capital. Gilad Shalit was captured on Sunday, June 25, 2006. In the early hours of the morning, seven armed Palestinians took Israeli forces by surprise when they crossed from Gaza into Israeli territory through a 100-meter long tunnel. Two soldiers on guard in Shalit's tank were killed and the other two hurt. Wounded in the shoulder and hand, Shalit was dragged back across the border near Kerem Shalom into Gaza. In the 900 plus days of his captivity, 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. In all the time he has been in captivity, Shalit has not received a single visit from the International Red Cross, which customarily verifies and reports on the condition of POWs. Hamas leaders openly admit denying the organization access for fear that its delegates might disclose Shalit's whereabouts or give away other operational secrets. The Red Cross says it has made every effort to see Shalit, including approaches to Hamas leaders abroad, all to no avail. And in an unusual step for the organization, which normally takes great pains to remain neutral, it condemned Hamas for allowing "political considerations" to outweigh "humanitarian concerns, and respect for basic humanitarian principles…" "Our latest attempt to see Gilad Shalit was in November when we asked to pass on thousands of Jewish New Year greeting cards, but this too was denied. We have never stopped trying to gain access to Gilad Shalit, and we will continue to do so," Pierre Dorbes, the official in charge of the Shalit file at the organization's Tel Aviv office, tells The Report. In August, Red Cross officials visited and interviewed Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, at their Mitzpe Hila home in northern Israel. Noam urged the organization to be more assertive in trying to get to Gilad; Aviva confided one of her deepest fears: "My worry," she said, "is that while I knew my son when he left this house, I don't know if I will know him when he comes back. This is a young boy - who knows how this experience has scarred him?" The truce between Israel and Hamas that went into effect on June 19 this year was a turning point in the public's attitude to the Shalit case. Pundits criticized the government for not including Shalit's release in a wider cease-fire package and Noam Shalit argued that by failing to do so, the government had abandoned Gilad and put his life in jeopardy. The government asserted that on the contrary, the cease-fire created conditions for Shalit's release: Whereas Hamas had seen holding Gilad as an insurance policy against the targeted assassination of its leaders, with the cease-fire this was no longer necessary. But although Hamas promised intense negotiations for Shalit's release immediately after the cease-fire, nothing materialized. And with the relative quiet on the Gaza border, and the return from Lebanon of the bodies of two other captured soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser on July 15, public attention turned to Shalit, the only remaining IDF soldier still in captivity. In early September, novelist A. B. Yehoshua and 19 other leading writers including Amos Oz, David Grossman and Sami Michael made a personal appeal to Olmert to save Gilad Shalit before it is too late. They quoted the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying, "If God gave me another chapter of life, I would relate to things according to their value not their price," and argued that "Israel's willingness to make significant sacrifices to get its soldiers back from captivity is a value far more precious than the price… We understand the fear that handing over hundreds of prisoners for one Israeli soldier would be seen by Hamas as a sign of weakness. But the envy expressed in the Arab world after the return of the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser at the way Israel did all it could to bring them home tells a different story." And they implored Olmert to act soon to prevent a repetition of the case of Ron Arad, the Israeli airman captured in Lebanon in 1986, who, after years of fruitless negotiations, disappeared and has not been heard from since. Less than a week later, on September 14, two sisters, Yael and Rutie Barkai, from Pardes Hanna and Tel Aviv started the protest vigil outside the prime minister's residence. They had come back from a big rally in Tel Aviv marking Shalit's 22nd birthday in late August convinced that one-off events like it were not having any effect. "We felt there was a need for a continuous protest that would pray on Olmert's conscience," says Yael. "So we decided to camp outside his residence so that he would see us when he leaves and when he gets back. Our volunteers are there seven days a week, 15 hours a day. Rain, winter, holidays, everything," adds Rutie. Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.