Captives and audiences

The release of the tape of Gilad Schalit shows Hamas is also fighting a ratings war.

Schalit Hamas website (photo credit: Channel 2)
Schalit Hamas website
(photo credit: Channel 2)
I remember the day peace broke out. It was in October 1994. I had been working all morning on a feature about the media aspects of the publication by Hamas of a video of kidnapped soldier Nachshon Wachsman, who had just been killed in a failed IDF rescue attempt. The piece eventually ran under the headline "Media experts: Kidnappers won the television ratings war." As the said experts were beginning to call me back following the messages I'd left on their answering machines in those pre-cellphone days, I got a surprise call from the news editor telling me to drop that story. It had just been announced that Jordan and Israel were going to initial a peace accord. My new assignment was to interview Arava farmers who might lose land under the diplomatic agreement. I recall feeling like the human equivalent of those television split screens you see when the breaking news is completely out of sync with the visuals of the previous top story. Like most of the country, I was elated by the announcement of the expected treaty. But, cynical journalist that I am, I remember thinking that the timing of the out-of-the-blue announcement could have something to do with the Rabin government's need to cheer up the nation, which was in a state of collective mourning for the young soldier who could have been anyone's brother or son. IT IS NOT surprising that those memories flooded back when Hamas released the audiotape of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit on June 25, the day of the Sharm e-Sheikh summit, although this time it was not the political leaders but Hamas leaders who wanted to capture the headlines (they are very fond of capturing both people and attention). We've all come a long way since October 1994, although it often seems like that long way has been in the wrong direction. Hamas has become even more media-savvy. But make no mistake, psychological warfare is just that: warfare, just as Carl von Clausewitz saw diplomacy as war by other means. Ostensibly the Schalit tape offering a sign of life and hope to his family was released to coincide with the first anniversary of his capture, but it is likely that Hamas wanted to literally get back into the picture as its arch-rivals - that's both Fatah and Israel - met to discuss the new reality on the ground. At the same time that Hamas released the tape of Schalit saying: "Just as I have parents, a mom and dad, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners also have mothers and fathers whose children must be returned to them. I have great hope that my government will take more interest in me, and respond to the demands of the Mujahideen," a videotape was released of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston with a belt of explosives apparently strapped to him. Johnston, who could be seen as the first person suffering from Stockholm syndrome before his abduction, warned that any rescue attempt would result in his being blown up. DESPITE THE very different contents of the tapes, the point was essentially the same: Marshall McLuhan's old dictum that "the medium is the message." Both tapes put the issue firmly back on the agenda, despite fierce opposition in the ratings war. In fact, this is a ratings war in the most literal sense. The Hamas tape of Schalit led to renewed discussion on the price of a prisoner exchange, and whether or not the government should speak to Hamas, at least on this subject. And, the day after the whole country listened to the audiocassette, Gilad's father, Noam Schalit, spoke in a live Channel 10 broadcast to top Hamas official Ahmed Youssef, although on camera the two restricted themselves to an exchange of "pleasantries." Youssef: "I hope that you are satisfied now by at least hearing the voice of your son." Schalit: "After a year, yes. We hope it is the beginning of a new start. Thanks for your concern. Hopefully progress will be made." WHAT A supreme effort that call must have taken. The price paid by the families as well as the prisoners themselves is extraordinary. While the families of Palestinian prisoners bemoan the fact that their sons and husbands are behind bars, albeit free to play backgammon and sip coffee, the families of the Israeli captured soldiers - and let us not forget those missing since June 1982 in Lebanon 1 - have no real information on their loved ones. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi likes to tell a story about his mother, former MK Geula Cohen, a right-wing hard-liner. When Hanegbi was serving in Lebanon in the first war - Operation Peace for Galilee, in Cohen's terms - she was asked what she would do if her son were taken prisoner. Her reply, according to Hanegbi, was: "As a mother, I would be outside the Prime Minister's Office with a megaphone 24 hours a day calling on the government to do anything it took to obtain his release. As a Knesset member, I would sit inside the PM's Office and tell him not to listen to the people outside." Cohen's answer sums up the very human dilemma. On the anniversary of Schalit's capture, Minister Ya'acov Edri told the Knesset that Israel was willing to pay a price, but not any price, for the release of the captured soldier, while Likud MK Reuven Rivlin reminded the assembled parliamentarians that there is an essential covenant between the country and the soldiers who serve it that they will not be abandoned in the field. APART FROM the humanitarian aspect, there is also a practical issue at stake. Will recruits be prepared to serve their country if they can't trust that country to be there for them - wherever "there" might be - in their hour of need? There has always been an understanding that Israel will do whatever it takes to obtain the release of captured soldiers and citizens. In my youth in Britain I watched, like most of my generation, the TV series and old movies of British soldiers who struggled to get out from German captivity - Colditz, The Great Escape, et al. The British soldiers had to rely on themselves. As an Israeli, especially following the Entebbe Operation 31 years ago this week, I understood that in a similar situation - heaven forbid - it was my job to try to stay alive and the country's job to rescue me. The price has gone up over the years. Gradually the discussions have changed from whether to release prisoners to how many prisoners, to how many prisoners with "blood on their hands." Now, the terrorist organizations are even trying to dictate the lists of which of their members should be let out of jail. All the ordinary citizen can do is pray that Hamas, Hizbullah and any other organization holding Israelis will one day release the soldiers themselves, not just tapes. I can guarantee them maximum media coverage. The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.