A Facebook search for ‘Gilad Shalit’, the 21-year-old Israeli conscript who was captured by Palestinian militants nearly three years ago, brings up 240 results. ‘Bring Gilad Shalit Home!!!!!!! (NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!)’ demands one group. ‘Gilad Shalit is still alive!’ insists another. On the two-year anniversary of his kidnapping, nearly 85,000 Facebook users pledged to change their status to ‘is waiting for Gilad Shalit for 2 years!!!’
Last Sunday, Shalit’s family set up a protest tent outside the outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem, hoping their manifestation would put pressure on the government to reach a deal with Hamas over their son’s release before the government shift later this month. Yesterday, on the thousandth day of his capture, it became clear that the latest prisoner-swap negotiations for Shalit’s release had failed.
Just 19 years old and fresh out of school when he was kidnapped in June 2006, Corporal Shalit cut a scrawny figure in his baggy army uniform. In Israel, his image became ubiquitous and is now firmly imprinted in the national consciousness. Much like Ron Arad, the air force navigator who has been missing in action since 1986, became the human face of the conflict with Lebanon for Israelis, Shalit has come to embody a great deal. He is a symbol for Israeli humanitarianism, Palestinian barbarism, military weakness, and political impotence – depending on who you ask.
The fallouts over the latest stalemate in the Egyptian-brokered prisoner-swap negotiations between Hamas and Israel have laid bare some fractures in Israeli society. It is widely seen as the outgoing government’s latest – and last – failure. Many argue that Olmert’s inability to secure a deal for Shalit’s release will make the job harder for future negotiators. However, it is not simply Israeli officials’ bartering and diplomatic skills that have been found wanting in this process – so too has Israel’s political confidence. And it is questionable whether Olmert’s successors have any more of it than he does.
From Israel’s side, the objective of the negotiations is ostensibly to free Shalit, but of course much more is on the table here. Israel is also negotiating the extent to which it will appear soft on Palestinian militants, how well it respects the nation’s cherished ethos of ‘never leaving a soldier behind,’ and the feelings of the parents who offer their children to the service of the state vs the feelings of those who have lost relatives in violent attacks perpetrated by some of the prisoners Hamas is demanding in exchange for Shalit.
Olmert’s biggest legacy (in addition to his involvement in a series of corruption scandals) will be that of the Second Lebanon War of 2006: a conflict that turned sour after initial widespread national support for the government’s fight against Hezbollah turned into widespread national disappointment. That war was triggered by the abduction of two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border less than a month after Shalit had been kidnapped during an attack on an Israeli army outpost near the Gaza-Israel-Egypt border.
In the eyes of the Israeli public, Olmert’s chances of ‘making good’ on the mistakes of the Second Lebanon War hinged, to a large extent, on striking a successful deal to free Shalit. While Goldwasser and Regev’s bodies were returned to Israel last year, in exchange for Israel handing over the remains of 199 Lebanese fighters and freeing five militants, Shalit is presumed to be alive and is still used as a pawn in prisoner-exchange barters. These barters have now come to a desperate gridlock, as Israel refused this week to agree to Hamas’s demand that it be allowed to select 450 prisoners for release in exchange for Shalit.
The Shalit family’s protest tent has become the scene of intense debate and emotion. It has turned into something of a pilgrimage destination for Israelis wishing to show their support for the soldier’s distressed family, and to express their frustration with an impotent Israeli government and their disgust with Shalit’s captors.
Yesterday, a group of Druze, Bedouins and Muslims, accompanied by Likud Knesset member Ayoob Kara, arrived at the Shalit family’s protest tent to express support for a deal securing Shalit’s release. At the site, visitors scribble messages on post-it notes and attach them to a wall. Unlike the personal prayer notes that visitors to Jerusalem’s kotel roll up and stick into the cracks of the wailing wall, the notes for Shalit are displayed openly for passers-by to read. The inside of the protest tent is adorned with posters and photographs of Shalit and slogans demanding he be brought home. One artist has donated a painting of Shalit in a soldier’s uniform and handcuffs. On a notice board, printed figures show the number of days Shalit has been missing in action.
But not everyone visiting the site is keen on the idea of getting Shalit back at any price. On Monday, families of fallen soldiers and victims of Palestinian violence set up a small tent of their own, next to the Shalit family’s tent, and held a silent protest against prisoner swaps. Shvuel Schijeveschuurder, who lost his parents and three siblings in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2001, told Haaretz: ‘I feel betrayed by the State of Israel and the court system.’ He vowed that if anyone involved in the attack that killed his family members were to be released, he would chase them down himself, ‘like [Simon] Wiesenthal tracked down the Nazis’.
The mother of a soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War visited the Shalit family to express her empathy, but told Haaretz she opposes prisoner exchanges. Admitting she would have done what the Shalit family is doing were she in a similar situation, she still added: ‘I wouldn’t want the government to listen to me. A government shouldn’t operate based on the weeping of mothers.’ During the Second Lebanon War, her son had told her that he would not want anyone released in exchange for him if he was kidnapped. ‘I agree with him 100 per cent’, the mother said. ‘Do what is good for the State of Israel – don’t operate based on tears.’
Perhaps in an attempt to prove why it was justified in drawing certain ‘red lines’ in the prisoner-swap negotiations, the Israeli government took the unusual step of publishing the names of some of the Palestinian prisoners that Hamas has demanded in exchange for Shalit. In total, Israel offered to release 325 prisoners, with the condition that 144 of them be sent to the Gaza Strip or abroad. The names of those Palestinians that Israel refused to release were published alongside the names of 10 of the prisoners it agreed to free with the condition of deportation.
The decision to publish these names looks like an effort on the part of Israeli political leaders to find sympathy amongst the public for their moral and political quandaries. In effect, the government is playing the feelings of bereaved relatives of the victims of Palestinian violence against the feelings of bereaved parents of dead Israeli soldiers, failing utterly, as the mother of that dead soldier urged, to avoid ‘operating on the basis of tears’.
In a press conference Olmert insisted that Israel ‘is not a defeated nation’, that it remains willing to negotiate over Shalit’s return but that it will not cross the ‘red lines’ set out in Cairo this week. Yet these red lines seem rather arbitrary. Israel is willing to release 350 prisoners, but apparently releasing 450 is ‘too high a price to pay’ and would unduly compromise Israel’s security.
The debate about how many Palestinian prisoners Shalit’s safe return home is worth masks some serious political failings. As Akiva Eldar points out in Haaretz, instead of admitting to their own failure in negotiating Shalit’s release over the past three years, Olmert and his partners have blamed everyone else – ‘the lobby that pressures, the ministers that identified with them, the media that reported, and especially the price-gougers in Hamas. The excuses and claims being scattered by government spokespeople, the heads of the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad and emissary Ofer Dekel, reveal their failure in managing this crisis.’
For the Israeli public, the Shalit negotiations are not simply a political management issue. Instead, it appears that this single soldier has become a powerful symbol, a conduit for expressing people’s hopes and frustrations. As such, the Shalit debacle has contributed to recasting the conflict with the Palestinians in emotive and un-nuanced terms.
For instance, many claim that Israel’s willingness to swap soldiers – dead or alive – for Palestinian prisoners who have been involved in killing Israels is powerful proof of the Israeli people’s solidarity and their respect for the sanctity of life. This is widely contrasted with Hamas’s occasional suicide-bombing tactics and their supposed use of ‘human shields’ in the Gaza Strip. In this way, the conflict is lazily turned into a struggle between good and evil, between humanitarians and barbarians.
The Shalit family’s protest tent has over the past week provided a physical space for Israelis’ frustrations; it has become a site for emotional outlet, a place where one can try to redefine Israel’s purpose, whether it is to ‘hold the line’ or ‘show compassion’. Here, the clash between the old Israel and the new Israel, between an Israel that refused to negotiate with ‘terrorists’ and fiercely protected its sovereignty and an Israel that makes sacrifices in the name of existential security, is played out.
As for Olmert and his partners, publishing the names of prisoners whose release had been on the negotiating table in Cairo was a powerful show of weakness, a demonstration that they are pandering to emotionalism. Apparently they believe that the way to people’s hearts and minds is through their tear canals – and it is questionable whether the new regime, even if it is more skilled, will be able to fix the broader crisis of legitimacy underpinning the three-year Shalit debacle.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.