My Word: Protesting the protest

The government must draw up a policy on the release of abducted soldiers, and abide by it.

Yoel Schalit Protest 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Yoel Schalit Protest 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Schalit family almost lost me on the way to Jerusalem last July. I felt the solidarity march for Gilad Schalit should have concluded on the Gaza border with a call to Hamas for his release. The Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, outside which the family has been living in a protest tent, is the wrong address.
A yellow ribbon flies outside my apartment window and I participated in the five-minute countrywide vigil a few weeks ago. I include Gilad Schalit in my thoughts and prayers. I long to write about his return home, almost five years after his abduction. It would certainly be pleasanter than writing this piece, criticizing the direction the campaign for his release is heading.
When Schalit’s brother, Yoel, and Yoel’s girlfriend, Ya’ara, burst onto the stage on May 9, during the traditional ceremony on Mount Herzl marking the transition from Remembrance Day to Independence Day, they crossed a line I’m not willing to cross with them.
“Can you imagine what it’s like for the family?” a friend asked me. It was meant to be a rhetorical question. No one who hasn’t actually suffered such a dreadful ordeal can know how they would react, but we can all imagine. I started imagining a long time ago – before Gilad, now 24, was born.
In 1982, during the First Lebanon War, my brother served in the armored corps. His unit suffered tremendous casualties, and my family was constantly worried that he would be either wounded or killed.
Then a new fear hit us: The brother of the store owner next to my parents’ print shop was taken prisoner. It raised a dreadful possibility that kept us awake at nights and tense during the days.
The soldier was eventually returned in a prisoner exchange after two years in captivity. Not all the families whose loved ones went missing at the time have been so lucky.
The families of Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz – all missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in June ’82 – still endure that all-consuming fear. Miriam Baumel, Zachary’s mother and a family friend, once told me: “You don’t know what they are going through and this is the thing you have nightmares about.” IAF navigator Ron Arad hasn’t celebrated Independence Day since 1986; Guy Hever has been been missing since 1997, and Majdi Halabi disappeared in 2005.
Do the families think mistakes have been made over the years? I bet! Would they handle the campaign for the release of their loved ones differently today? Obviously. Who wouldn’t want their son to return home alive? They have failed in their ultimate goal.
No wonder the Schalits are willing to do anything to prevent Gilad from disappearing forever.
Hence they have ensured, in a dignified way until now, that Gilad Schalit’s name is known to every household in Israel and a huge number of homes abroad. His fate has touched the hearts of decent human beings around the world.
The Schalits can complain of many things, but lack of publicity is not one of them. There was no need to violate the most Israeli experience possible – the almost sacred moment when Remembrance Day transforms into Independence Day in what is more a national ritual than a state ceremony.
Remembrance Day comes with its own special emotional baggage for Israelis, nearly all of whom can put a face to the name of someone among the fallen. Independence Day is the release mechanism.
You can’t forget those you’ve lost – you don’t need Remembrance Day for that – but at least you can celebrate in a country which is very much alive, against the odds.
THE FATE of Gilad Schalit has been, until now, a consensus issue. But when Yoel Schalit unfurled the banner which read “My father was a bereaved brother. I don’t want to be one too” there was no doubt where it was directed – at the prime minister, below the belt.
Netanyahu, after all, probably wouldn’t even be in politics had not the death of his brother, Yoni, during the legendary Entebbe rescue operation of July 1976 changed the course of his life.
As Yoel and Ya’ara were ushered out of the area by security personnel, I realized that the ceremony would never be the same again.
From now on, every year, we will wonder who is going to try to grab the country’s attention – striking doctors, poorly paid social workers, relatives of the fallen firefighters, struggling single parents or just some would-be celebrity desperate for 15 minutes of fame without the bother of auditioning for a reality show? And there are other questions, too: Do such stunts help bring Gilad a little closer to crossing the Gaza border or raise the price Hamas feels it can demand? Does it save one, infinitely invaluable, life or put at risk others whose names we do not yet know? Gilad Schalit could be anybody’s brother; so could the next soldier kidnapped by Hamas when it feels it serves its purposes.
The Hamas members in Israeli prisons are not there – in vastly better conditions than Schalit, I might add – because Netanyahu, or prime minister Ehud Olmert before him, didn’t like them. They are terrorists – murderers – and nothing indicates that they have become peaceloving members of the global village in the meantime.
I WOULDN’T want to be the person who has to decide what price should be paid for the return of one soldier.
Israel has a moral obligation “to bring its boys home,” but, alas, the “morals” are only being felt on this side of the border, and that complicates the issue in an excruciatingly painful way.
Instead of trying to put more pressure on the prime minister, the Schalits could turn the force of their pain in the direction of those who could help over the border: the UN and the Red Cross. The protest tent could be outside their offices.
As for the limelight, they might just as well grab some on a stage where Daniel Barenboim is conducting a concert. Barenboim, after all, performed in Gaza a week ago without mentioning one word about the abducted soldier, who has not had any contact with the outside world for five years.
Yes, the prime minister ultimately is the one who has to take the decision. That decision isn’t what is best for Gilad Schalit, but what is best for the whole country.
It can be assumed that he is privy to information that the general public isn’t – not the Schalits, not bereaved parents, or anyone else who believes they have a right to know. This knowledge will help him make up his mind. Heaven help us, all of us, if the prime minister takes a decision with such huge potential ramifications based on the gimmicks dreamed up by PR experts and carried out by a family living a nightmare.
Once Schalit is safely back home, the rules must change. The country cannot afford to be held hostage. The government must draw up a policy on the release of abducted soldiers, and abide by it. No diplomatic process should be considered complete unless it addresses the matter of the MIAs.
Such issues must be placed beyond the realm of politics.
Only then, having matured, can we truly celebrate our independence.
The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.
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