Hamas, not Israel, must feel the pressure over Gilad

The Schalit family's repeated calls to the government to capitulate to Hamas' demands have borne no fruit. It's time to turn the tables and channel that pressure directly at Hamas instead.

Schalit Demo 311 (photo credit: Gali Sheffer Manor)
Schalit Demo 311
(photo credit: Gali Sheffer Manor)
It’s far too soon to declare a trend, but three recent incidents deviated sharply from the usual Israeli activities on behalf of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit: Rather than trying to pressure the government to capitulate to Hamas’ demands, all sought instead to put pressure on the Palestinians.
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Earlier this month, a court upheld the state’s decision to deny a Hamas prisoner family visits. Abdullah Barghouti is serving 67 life sentences for his role in numerous deadly suicide bombings, and the state cast the issue primarily in terms of security: Barghouti has repeatedly tried to foment terror from his jail cell via smuggled messages, and was liable to use his relatives as conduits for such messages.
But the Be’er Sheva District Court also acknowledged an additional justification for the decision: “To my mind, the question of reciprocity, or lack thereof, between the State of Israel and the appellant’s organization with regard to prisoners of one side held by the other is not irrelevant,” the judge wrote. In other words, the fact that Hamas has deprived Schalit of family visits for the last five years is grounds for similarly depriving Hamas prisoners of family visits.
Then, two weeks ago, Gilad’s parents wrote to US Congressional leaders - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner - to urge them to halt funding to the Palestinian Authority unless Gilad is freed. Since Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form a unity government, the letter argued, the PA can no longer disclaim responsibility for Gilad’s fate, and the threat of losing Washington’s annual $400 million donation might encourage it to take action.
Finally, last week, pro-Schalit activists blocked an armored truck carrying cash to the Gaza Strip, forcing it to turn around with its load undelivered. (Because the West Bank and Gaza both still use the shekel as their currency, the Bank of Israel regularly supplies Hamas-ruled Gaza with truckloads of new bills to replace worn-out ones, so that its economy can continue functioning despite Hamas’ ongoing war with Israel.) “The money won’t pass until Gilad is returned,” the activists chanted.
For the last five years, both Schalit’s parents and pro-Schalit activists have devoted virtually all their time and energy to pressing the government to simply capitulate to Hamas’ demands: the release of 1,000 terrorists, including many of the worst murders of the second intifada. By contrast, they have made almost no effort to pressure Hamas to moderate these demands.
Nor has the government made many efforts to do so, aside from one failed military operation launched immediately after Schalit’s abduction (and, to some extent, the Gaza blockade). Instead, it has spent its time and energy on “negotiations” that amounted to nothing more than serial capitulations. When former prime minister Ehud Olmert left office in March 2009, he had already agreed to free the full 1,000 prisoners, including 325 of the 450 whom Hamas specifically demanded by name. And by the time negotiations broke down again last winter, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had approved dozens more from Hamas’ list, reportedly narrowing the gap to as few as 50, 15 or even seven names.
Yet Israel has numerous levers of pressure that it has never even tried to apply. For instance, Hamas prisoners in Israel are routinely allowed family visits; this month’s ruling on Barghouti made the papers precisely because it was so exceptional. They also enjoy numerous other privileges, such as the right to purchase luxuries from the prison canteen. But neither Olmert’s government nor Netanyahu’s ever made any move to halt these privileges, and when individual MKs submitted legislation to do so, both governments repeatedly blocked it. A year ago, Netanyahu’s government finally said it would support such legislation, but since then, it has dragged its feet, with the result that the bill has yet to even pass its first reading.
Nor have the Schalit family or activists ever seriously attempted to secure such legislation. They have repeatedly mobilized massive demonstrations to demand that the government capitulate to Hamas’ demands, but have yet to call a single demonstration to demand that the government halt Hamas prisoners’ privileges.
Similarly, neither the government nor the Schalit family ever tried to put financial pressure on Hamas by urging Congress to cut funding for United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The organization effectively subsidizes the Hamas government by providing numerous services, including schools and health care, which relieves Hamas of the need to provide them itself. And since America is UNRWA’s largest donor, a Congressional decision to cut the organization’s funding could have a significant impact.
There are also those truckloads of cash to Gaza, and Israeli tax transfers to the PA. The latter are used in part to pay public-sector salaries in Gaza, thereby again subsidizing the Hamas government.
Granted, pressuring Israel’s democratic government is much easier than pressuring Hamas’ dictatorship. But even Hamas requires some measure of public support to maintain its grip on power. Thus if Schalit’s continued captivity were causing genuine pain, it would feel pressure to soften its demands.
It’s also true that every possible lever of pressure has potential downsides that must be carefully weighed. But the idea that Israel is incapable of using any of them beggars belief.
There’s something terribly unhealthy about a country whose government prefers capitulating to a terrorist organization, and whose public prefers pressuring its government to do so, rather than even attempting to pressure the terrorists to moderate their demands. Effectively, Israel has been acting as if it alone, and not Hamas as well, bore responsibility for the problem, and as if it alone, and not Hamas as well, had exploitable weaknesses. In fact, that is still the dominant narrative; the three healthier responses cited above are far too little, too late.
But if Israel is ever to be capable of meeting the challenges that surround it, this narrative must be reversed. For a country that perceives itself as both uniquely responsible and uniquely vulnerable has small chance of surviving in an increasingly hostile world.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.