The story of a war-torn world where that seems a fair exchange to both sides
Depending on how you look at it, the Gilad Shalit saga can be seen many ways. To some, it is a deeply inspiring story of loyalty and endurance, in which an entire country refused to give up on one family’s son, seen as ‘everyone’s son’, no matter how high the price. To others, this is the tale of how the Great Israel was brought to its knees by its own lack of self-knowledge and by its cunning enemies who knew how to exploit its vulnerabilities. This might also be a story of how leaders on both sides, usually locked in their mythological animosity, show themselves this once to be men like us, fathers and brothers, as they roll up their sleeves and negotiate determinedly so they can go home and tell their wives at long last: “Yes dear, pull up the window shades and put out the bed linen, our sons/daughters/brothers/sisters are coming home.” But turn the script upside down, and you find the calculated play of cynical politicians using each other for their own gains.
Millions around the world watched the scenes on the morning of Tuesday, 18 October: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians gathered in Gaza and in the PA (the West Bank) to welcome the 477 released prisoners as they filed victoriously off the buses that brought them from Israeli jails to freedom. The Shalit deal includes 550 more prisoners, to be released two months from now. In all, 1,027 Palestinians—many of them convicted of murder, many not guilty of anything—will be released in exchange for one 25-year-old Israeli soldier, held in captivity by the Hamas for the past five and a half years. All details of the exchange were choreographed to the minutest detail to guarantee success. On the Israeli side, the public and media committed to restrain itself, giving Shalit a chance to reunite privately with his family. But the great displays of emotion on both sides of the border could not be controlled. Shalit looked gaunt and pale, yet managed to give an impressive interview to Egyptian TV. “I hope all this will bring peace and reconciliation” were his last words on foreign soil, before the lone soldier walked over the border back into Israel, into his parents’ fierce embrace.
On a hazy morning in late June 2006, a small group of Hamas ‘militants’ from Gaza crawled through a clandestine tunnel and emerged in Israeli territory, near the border village of Kerem Shalom (Vineyard of Peace). They ran into a small unit of Israeli soldiers in tanks, on border patrol duty. In the ensuing battle, two of the Hamas fighters and two of the Israeli soldiers were killed. Sergeant Gilad Shalit, then 19, a reportedly bright and sweet-natured novice, was injured when a grenade was thrown into his tank. He was captured and taken hostage. In the five and a half years since, no one but his captors had seen him. In defiance of international law, all requests for access by the Red Cross and other international agencies were denied; Shalit was apparently kept in an isolated cell for the entire duration of his captivity. The only proof he was alive came in the form of three handwritten letters (one handed over by the Hamas in exchange for several freed Palestinian prisoners, another as a goodwill gesture to the visiting Jimmy Carter), an audiotape and most recently a video CD recorded in 2009. Nothing since.
On the day after Shalit’s capture, the Hamas sent a message that they would release him in exchange for all the Palesti- nian women and underage Palestinians in Israeli jails. The Israeli government refused the offer, launching a military offensive (a “rescue attempt”) against Gaza instead. “The sky will fall on your heads if Shalit is harmed,” Israel warned, “We will not stop until he is safely in our hands.” Many civilian casualties later, the military offensive stopped, but Gaza was put under a tight siege. Many diplomatic efforts were made on Shalit’s behalf—by the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Pope. There have also been failed attempts at negotiation, but Israel refused to cross certain red lines (namely no release of prisoners with ‘blood on their hands’). As Hamas stepped up its demands, Israel responded by worsening the conditions of (thousands of) Palesti- nian prisoners.
In Israel, all Jewish citizens, male and female, must serve in the army (ultra religious and non-Jewish citizens have the option of joining the civilian National [welfare] Service, instead). This means that from the time your children are born, you are keenly aware of their rapid journey towards their eighteenth birthday, when you must send them off to their conscription. As Israel is nearly always in the midst of some military crisis, the stress on youngsters and their parents can be tremendous. Some parents pray their children will be passed over by combat units and given a job out of harm’s way; for others, it is a matter of pride that their children are combatants, perhaps in elite units. Some youngsters mightily dread that first brown envelope, received by post sometime during their sixteenth year, holding within it a tersely worded first summons. Others might wave excitedly this proof that they are finally grown up. Soon begins the process of physical, emotional and mental screening, unit selection, and perhaps pre-courses for special units or officer training. Soon after their eighteenth birthday, they are off for their three-year or longer service.
There is a phrase, a basic tenet of Jewish thought and life that goes: “All members of Israel are responsible for one another.” It can be debated, of course, whether this noble sentiment is actually followed in daily life (the cynics scoff). But their belief that this moral command will be strictly adhered to is what allows parents to sleep at night while their children are out on the frontline. As the years went by and Gilad Shalit remained in captivity, Noam and Aviva Shalit, Gilad’s parents, began to lose hope that the government was absolutely committed to bring their son home, and they decided to enlist mass public support. Several years ago, the Shalit family set out on a 12-day march, from their home to Jerusalem, joined on the way by tens of thousands wearing ‘Gilad Shalit Is Still Alive’ T-shirts. Upon reaching Jerusalem, they pitched a tent outside the Prime Minister’s residence. They have stayed there ever since, visited by countless citizens, celebrities and dignitaries. A large percentage of cars in Israel sport ‘Free Gilad’ bumper stickers; on holidays, many Israelis have been laying their tables with a symbolic place for the missing son. Last summer, on Shalit’s 25th birthday, the entire country marked his absence with a five-minute shutdown. In a country deeply divided on political, religious and economic lines, the demand to bring Gilad home became the only point of clear consensus. For the government and its Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, success on this issue was of vital importance in an otherwise dismal term in office. This goes double for the Hamas, as the residents of Gaza are increasingly blaming their own leaders for the ever harsher living conditions in this tiny, cursed enclave.
Early in 2011, negotiations re-started in earnest, with some new players on both sides and the active and skilled support of Egyptians. Both the Israeli and Hamas negotiators yielded more than they had before, determined to seize the moment. One evening mid-October, there was an emergency meeting of the Israeli cabinet to approve a deal on Gilad Shalit, and within minutes of its announcement, the Jewish and Palestinian worlds were overcome with feelings (complete with endless alerts, chats, phone calls, tweets and status messages). But after the initial euphoria on both sides, the old divisions began to reappear. Among Palestinians, there was great disappointment that several key leaders, considered non-negotiable members in any deal, will remain in prison. Voices on the West bank accused the Hamas of using this chance to strengthen itself at the expense of its rival, the PLO and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, who recently put forth a bid for Palestinian statehood to the UN. In Israel, many whose relatives were murdered by some of the prisoners to be released felt betrayed, violated. Others voiced their alarm over the security implications of freeing so many ‘proven terrorists’ and their leaders, many of whom have promised to strike again. And wouldn’t the payment of such a high ransom not only humiliate Israel but also leave it vulnerable to continued kidnappings? Military generals and security analysts were mobilised to explain to the public that the risk was not so great, that the released men and women were merely a drop in the ocean compared to the militia already on the ground. Forty-eight hours were given to the public to appeal the deal in the high court, and indeed some appeals appeared, but most of the public gave its full support. It was time for Israeli President Shimon Peres to sit down to the most emotionally fraught task in his long life of service to the country: signing the pardons of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them directly responsible for the murder of dozens of Israeli civilians.
Most of the attention has been on the plight of Gilad Shalit and his family, who have done more than anyone to bring about this momentous exchange of prisoners. As for the Palestinians, the world’s focus has been on those known to have carried out acts of terror against civilians: Abed Ganaim, who steered an Israeli bus into an abyss, killing 12; Nasser Uteima, responsible for an explosion in a hotel that killed 30; Amna Muna, who lured an Israeli youth via a fake internet romance and then had him murdered, to name only a few. But many of those who will be released are not guilty of any crime besides perhaps the political one of protesting the occupation they have been under for all or most of their life. Many have been jailed for years with no charge of violence; some have been falsely accused and incarcerated without trial. There are more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; unofficial figures are 700,000 detained since 1967. It must be understood that there is hardly a Palestinian family that has not had a relative detained in Israeli prison. Time served as a ‘security prisoner’ is a rite of passage. As Palestinians have no duty/privilege to join their own army (they have no army or country of their own), joining the militias can seem the only honourable way to fight for their people. Most Palestinians are not apologetic about violent acts against Israeli civilians, but rather see them in the context of their struggle for freedom against an unending and violent occupation. The prisoners, many in jail for decades, are seen as heroes, freedom fighters, cherished by their people no less than Gilad Shalit is cherished by his own. They know the world’s sympathy for them is not as pure as it is for the Shalit family. Still, like the Shalits, they waved their flags and prepared their loved ones’ favourite foods, held their breath, wiped their tears, and prayed nothing would go wrong as time crawled excruciatingly towards the hour set for the exchange.
Watching the celebrations Tuesday, it was hard to not feel disappointed. All thoughts of reconciliation based on the understanding of a shared humanity fly out of the window when you see released prisoners on buses and Israeli politicians continue their worn-out rhetoric of enemies and revenge and the strength of the military answer. “We want another Gilad Shalit!” chanted crowds in Gaza. “We will decimate those who try to hurt us!” promised the Israeli PM. Shalit himself, astonishingly poised while obviously overwhelmed, told an Egyptian interviewer: “It’ll give me great happiness if all prisoners are set free, and the cooperation between both sides is consolidated.” Depending on how you look at it, it is either a brave step in the name of love and loyalty, or a dangerous surrender, a shameful betrayal. The only comfortable thing in this story is the bed Gilad Shalit is sleeping in tonight, after 1,942 nights in solitary confinement behind enemy lines.