My middle stepson is a few months older than Gilad Shalit but they joined the army around the same time. He completed his military service some time ago now and has already managed to take a long trip to Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and Thailand. Right now he is debating what to study at university (I’m in the philosophy and international relations camp but Dad is rooting for water engineering) and has just set up a home of his own with his lovely girlfriend. Every time he pops in to take something else to his new nest I remind myself how lucky we are that he is living a normal life and doing the things a twenty-four year old should be doing, unlike Gilad and his family.
Instead of browsing prospectuses for universities or donating towels and bedding to a new apartment, the Shalit family are at this moment walking to Jerusalem in the oppressive summer heat to try to raise awareness of the beginning of their son’s fifth year of captivity at the hands of Hamas. Tens of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life and from all over the country, most without any direct connection to Gilad, have joined them on their journey. Those unable to join the march have yellow ribbons and balloons tied to their cars, garden fences or handbags. Every family in this country is acutely aware of the fact that instead of Gilad it could easily have been their son who has been held without contact with the outside world for all these long years.
This nation is also engaged in painful debates about what should be done to speed up Gilad’s release. There is a real dilemma here, of which everyone is aware. The parent, brother or sister in each one of us wants to see Gilad blinking in the sunlight at last, swamped by the hugs of his family, and our instincts tell us to pay any price to make that happen. But we also know that in a way, Gilad is a victim of the fact that we have done exactly that in the past. We have released hundreds of terrorists from Israeli prisons just to bring one or two of our captured soldiers back home, even if they were no longer among the living. In doing so, maybe we unintentionally nurtured an environment in which it is worthwhile for terror groups to abduct Israeli soldiers and if we release the 1,000 prisoners which Hamas demand for Gilad’s freedom, maybe we are in fact laying the foundations for the kidnapping of the next Gilad.
When we send our eighteen-year-old sons and daughters to the army we comfort ourselves with the fact that no matter what, our country will do its best to make sure that they come home. We therefore expect our government to do everything in its power now to reunite the Shalit family. On the other hand, how are we to be capable of looking into the eyes of those hundreds of Israeli families whose loved ones were murdered by the same terrorists we are about to release? How can we snatch away from them the little sense they had that justice had been done when their relative’s murderer was tried, convicted and sentenced? I have no answers to these difficult questions; I really do not know what we should do because every side in this debate is right and whatever action we take, someone will be irreparably hurt.
There is, of course, another way. The cycle of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and the release of convicted terrorists in order to buy their freedom could be broken if Israel were not alone in this. If Human Rights organizations, foreign governments, the UN and the world’s liberal media were to put real and significant pressure on the terrorist groups responsible for the unlawful kidnapping of Israeli soldiers from inside Israel’s borders, these tragic events would stop.
Imagine if the UN announced tomorrow that it was suspending all UNWRA activities and funding in the Gaza Strip until Gilad Shalit was released. Imagine if the EU refused to allow imports of strawberries and flowers from Gaza until the Red Cross was granted regular access to Gilad in accordance with his rights under international law. Imagine if Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or B’Tselem did more than release the occasional tepid statement. Imagine if the BBC and the Guardian actually reported this story with the same zeal and intensity as they invested in the kidnapping of Alan Johnston.
Last Friday marked the end of four years of Gilad Shalit’s captivity in Gaza in clear violation of his rights as a prisoner and as a human being. The Guardian has failed to report upon either this unhappy anniversary or the tens of thousands-strong march currently in progress right under the nose of its new Jerusalem correspondent. Can Harriet Sherwood really not see all those bright yellow balloons?
Why this resounding silence?