Friday, June 25, 2010
Gilad Shalit: Hostage of Hamas
by Micael Oren
In a small Jerusalem café, I sat with Noam Shalit and tried to discuss his son, Gilad. I say tried because each time Noam, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man, began a sentence, the owner of the café rushed over with complimentary plates of humus, salads and desserts. Passersby, glimpsing Noam through the window, burst inside to embrace him. “We are with you,” they cried. “We will get our Gilad home.”
That our is the key to understanding the devotion that Israelis feel for Gilad Shalit. The Israel Defense Forces is a citizens’ army in which most young men serve for a minimum of three years, followed by several decades of reserve duty. Young women serve for at least two. Our soldiers are literally our parents, our siblings, our children. Israel is also a small country with few if any degrees of separation between families. Even those who have never met the Shalits know someone who has. And all of us have loved ones—a brother, a son—who could suffer the same ordeal that Gilad began four years ago today.
Early on the morning of June 25, 2006, Hamas terrorists—using a tunnel secretly excavated during a cease-fire with Israel—infiltrated across the Gaza border and attacked an IDF base. Firing rocket grenades and automatic weapons, they killed two soldiers—Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, both 20—and kidnapped the 19-year-old corporal, Gilad Shalit. The IDF promptly launched a massive manhunt in Gaza, suffering an additional five fatalities, but failed to find the abductors. Hamas, meanwhile, demanded that Israel release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, most of them convicted terrorists, in exchange for Gilad’s freedom.
Since then, Gilad’s parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, have only received three letters from their son as well as a brief video showing an emaciated hostage with a haunted expression and lightless eyes. Hamas has refused to allow the Red Cross or other NGOs to visit Gilad, or to permit mail or aid packages to reach him. And to mock the Shalit family’s suffering, Hamas has staged re-enactments of the kidnapping, most recently in a Gaza summer camp, and plays in which actors portraying Gilad beg for their release. An animated Hamas film depicts an aged Noam Shalit grieving over his son’s coffin.
The plight of Gilad Shalit poses painful dilemmas. Should Israel negotiate with Hamas, a terror organization sworn to its destruction, and unleash hundreds of terrorists, many of whom will quickly return to murdering? Or can Israel leave Gilad to languish alone indefinitely, prolonging his family’s agony and undermining the faith in which other families send their children to battle?
There are no easy answers. Yet Israel has consistently sought to secure Gilad’s freedom through the good offices of intermediaries, all the while striving to reconcile the nation’s security needs with the time-honored Jewish principle of pidayon shivuyim, the redemption of prisoners.
The struggle to bring Gilad home has become a national passion for Israelis. His birthday and the anniversary of his abduction are both commemorated with dramatic public events. In one such rally, some 2,000 young people sailed a “freedom for Gilad” fleet of homemade rafts across the Sea of Galilee. Photographs of Gilad as a whimsical teenager loom from public walls and flutter on flags from car antennas. His name is emblazoned on bracelets popular among Israeli youth and the days of his captivity are displayed on a booth near the prime minister’s residence.
But the campaign to free Gilad Shalit is hardly limited to Israel. The mayors of Miami and New Orleans have made him an honorary citizen, as have the cities of Paris and Rome. President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared Gilad’s release “a top French priority,” and President Barack Obama has further condemned his “inhumane detention.”
Nevertheless, Gilad Shalit remains in solitary confinement—in spite of the protests and his parents’ unflagging appeals to the international community. Lost in the recent tumult surrounding Israel’s efforts to block Iranian and Syrian arms shipments to Hamas, which has fired 10,000 rockets at Israeli civilians to date, is the unending nightmare of the Shalit family. Their pain is shared by countless Israelis and well-wishers worldwide. We must not rest until our Gilad is once again safely at home.
Mr. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
First published in The Wall Street Journal.
"Bring Him Home," performed by Dudu Fisher for Gilad Shalit