What if Gilad Shalit was your son, held for four years without a word in captivity?

Jul 07, 2010
*Special to asia!

The family of the captured soldier want the Israeli government to bring their son home. Is giving in to Hamas' demand for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure Shalit's release a move Israel can afford to make?

Along the lanes, roads and highways here in Israel, thin yellow ribbons have been tied to car doors, windshield wipers, bumpers and antenna, fluttering in the arid summer winds.

The ribbons symbolise one thing: solidarity with the Shalits.

For four years now, the Shalits have been waiting for their son Gilad to come home. He was captured by the Palestinian group Hamas, and apart from a video they received of him last September, the family have not had any news of him. The International Red Cross have also been barred from visiting the 23-year-old. Any contact with foreign groups, Hamas say, could reveal his location to the Israelis.

With no external contact made, truth be told, no one knows if he is still alive. The assumption is that he is, basically because he is worth more to Hamas, alive than dead.

Hamas have set conditions for his release: the freedom of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners now held in Israeli jails, a number of whom are convicted of plotting and carrying out terror attacks against the Jewish state.

Gilad Shalit is just another pawn in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though perhaps as some would argue, a complicit chess piece, since he was taken as a combatant soldier during a cross-border raid. But to the Shalits, this distinction must matter little. He is just their son. They want him home.

For the last 11 days they marched from the north of Israel where he is from, and they are now approaching Jerusalem. The Shalits are headed to the Prime Minister's residence. When Benjamin Netanyahu returns from his meeting with US President Barack Obama, they will be waiting for him. They plan to camp there till he does something to bring their son home. Noam Shalit said, he was not going home without his son.

The Shalits' march has captured the hearts of Israelis all over the country.  Each day, tens of thousands of Israelis join them, causing human clots in the main traffic arteries of the country. Even more turn up at rallies to meet them and speak out for them. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra played a concert at the Gaza border in his honour.

This is a cause close enough to the heart of a country of conscripts in a perpetual conflict: the Shalits could have been them, Gilad could have been them. Tying a yellow ribbon is an easy thing to do, marching in the oppressive Middle Eastern summer perhaps less so, but it is still less complicated than the decision pressed on the Israeli leadership.

Israel has an understanding with its soldiers, it will bring them home. The question, really, is : How?

There are those who support freeing the Palestinian prisoners. The Haaretz newspaper journalist Gideon Levy reminded readers in an op-ed piece of  the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades commander in the West Bank town of Jenin, Zakariya Zubeidi. Once Israel's "most wanted," he was granted partial amnesty and is now a minister in the Palestinian Authority, working too with a Israeli-Palestinian theatre group in Jenin.

Levy also cited an interview with the top Israeli commander in the West Bank Avi Mizrachi, who said the security forces could deal with the threat posed by the freed Hamas activists.

Not all Israelis are assured by that. A nation created out of the fresh fear of annihilation from the Holocaust does not perhaps take existential threats lightly. During the Second Palestinian Intifada between 2000 and 2005, it's estimated more than 450 Israeli civilians were killed on buses, restaurants, cafes and other such public places. Is it ludicrous to release those behind heinous crimes like these back into the community, and then expect them not repeat them?

Would any other country, if they had – as Israel did - endured such a climate of fear and terrorism?

And what about trusting Palestinian militant groups? What is there to stop them from capturing (or as Israel calls it, kidnapping) more Israelis, when it is both such a lucrative exchange and an effective way to get the enemy's attention? What too of the other Israelis whose lives could be put at risk in future, because the nation was so anxious to get Gilad Shalit back?

Releasing militants back into the fold of society is not a decision politicians dare to take lightly. If they could, the US government would have banished Guantanamo Bay into history.

The questions Israel as a country are grappling with right now are tough. On the other side, this cause célèbre has buoyed Palestinians in a somewhat similar situation as the Shalits. On seeing public pressure leaning on the Netanyahu government, families of Palestinian prisoners marched on Sunday to Gaza, calling on Hamas to stick to its original demands for their loved ones to be freed in exchange.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi