- Gilad Shalit
Among the momentous events of recent days was the release of a young Israeli soldier from captivity in Gaza called Gilad Shalit. He was fresh out of school and doing his compulsory time in national service as most Israelis do, before taking their gap year and considering university or what else to do with their lives. Gilad was 19 when he was kidnapped in 2006 in a cross border raid and little was heard about him since then until recently.
I had known about him from before, but then I guess I would have as I’m prone to keeping an eye on events in Israel and the Middle East as you will know by now but it’s never been a story I’ve followed and had actually forgotten about until my recent visit to Israel last month. At one point in that trip the name of Gilad Shalit was briefly mentioned in one of the many interesting conversations with our tour guide Nathan. It was a fleeting mention, but while this story has been mostly unheard of outside Israel, inside it’s been a recurrent news theme. I can’t say that the mentioning of his name got me to start praying for his release because it didn’t really register with me. It was a couple of days later that I felt a burden to pray for his release and also for the release of any Palestinian prisoners being wrongfully held by the Israelis. I was keeping a blog for the radio station I work for because I was part of a 3-man team broadcasting our weekday Breakfast show from Israel at the time and so recorded my thoughts on this with an encouragement to the listeners to also pray for all captives wrongfully held.
Now the whole world knows the name of Gilad Shalit as the global media set up camp in Israel, on the border of Egypt and on the West Bank to watch the now 24 year old soldier be released…in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Many of those 1,000+ released were proven convicted terrorists and many others were not convicted of anything. Palestinians can be subject to being arrested and held without trial by Israel- another of the many, many causes of tension out there.
I sat back and watched the media coverage of the releases that day and was bemused by the almost palpable excitement in the reporting that this event could be a harbinger of the renewal of the Peace Process. How often, after all, do we see scenes of jubilant Israelis and Palestinians at the same time – though not side by side – on our TV screens? I saw the event as a a brief moment of joy, yes, but one very quickly followed by some sobering thoughts that bring us very quickly back to the same status quo before the releases. Not all of Israel was celebrating for a start. In fact, while all the country wanted the release of Shalit, thanks in part to the efforts of his family in keeping his name in the local media but also to the current Israeli Government who took it up as a ’cause celebre’ for political reasons, they were and still are divided on the price they had to pay for his release – 1,000+ Palestinians, many of whom were proven perpetrators of acts of terror in Israel.
So why did the Israeli Government agree to this prisoner exchange knowing how it would deeply divide the nation and what made Hamas, the internationally recognised terrorist group that run Gaza, want to play the Shalit card now? I think that on the Israeli side, as was very evident in all the conversations I had with locals when I was there, they are feeling a deep sense of international rejection and isolation. They are particularly wounded by the complete break down of relations with their erstwhile ally in the region (Turkey) and are nervous and anxious about the recent changes in Egypt. There is a need for them to be seen as not so intransigent as some media portray but there is also a feeling that with the increasingly unsettled relations between competing Palestinian factions, that sooner rather than later might be the only way to have secured Shalit’s release without the use of force if they detected where he was. That brings me to the inter-Palestinian political situation that also contributed to this release.
We need to remember that there is no one central voice for the Palestinians and not all Palestinians live outside Israel. The Palestinians who live on the West Bank are goverened by the Palestinian Authority lead by Mahmoud Abbas. Those in Gaza are ruled by Hamas lead by Ahmed Yassin. The two are at odds with each other and do not recognise each other as legitimate rulers of the united Palestinian people. Globally, Abbas is seen as legitimate and moderate, Yassin is seen as a terrorist by some. Here is one major problem affecting the Peace Process – in terms of the world and Israel recognising a single Palestinian state and negotiating with its leaders…who exactly are those leaders? There is also a significant Palestinian population that live in Israel and who have chosen to take Israeli citizenship and even serve in the Israeli army that would prefer not to be ruled by either the PA or Hamas.
There is some considerable positioning going on between Hamas and the PA at the moment that might explain the willingness of Hamas to release Shalit at this time. The recent initiative to seek UN recognition of Palestine as a full member state by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority was a blindingly spectacular PR coup, not just across the globe, but across all the Palestinian people on the West Bank….and in Gaza. Not only was Israel wrong-footed by the cleaver move, but so was Hamas, who shunned Abbas’ approaches to join him at the UN to display a united Palestine before the world. Abbas has enjoyed massive popularity since he returned from New York – and I was out in Israel on the day he made his address to the UN General Assembly and saw the reactions being reported around me. Hamas is facing a decline in popularity among the peoples of Gaza not just because of Abbas’ political deftness but because there is a general unhappiness with the way Hamas are running the country with rising prices and a stalling economy despite the very considerable overseas investment, particularly from the EU. There is a feeling in some areas that Yassin was made more willing to release Shalit now to counter play the popularity of Abbas.
So is there a chance for a return to the Peace Process from the release of Gilad Shalit? No, I don’t think so. That’s not to say there won’t be a return to the negotiations but this will not be the catalyst. I think the release says more about what’s going on among the Palestinians than it does about the willingness of either side to talk peace. As the many Israelis who opposed the deal believe, this will only open the way for more high profile kidnappings. There are after all some 5,000 Palestinians still in Israeli jails.
- Majdi Halabi
One final footnote to the Shalit releases. Gilad Shalit was not the only Israeli soldier held in captivity. I only became aware of another called Majdi Halabi when driving up on Mount Carmel near Haifa in northern Israel on my last trip. Majdi was, like Gilad, only 19 when he was kidnapped a year before Shalit in 2005. Majdi Halabi is Druze – a Muslim sect that is at odds with mainstream Islam. The Druze are forbidden to marry outside their religion. They are an Arabic people and have chosen to have full Israeli citizenship. They are not compelled to serve in the Israel Defence Forces as most Jewish kids are, but they can choose to do so. Halabi was one who chose to serve in the army and he was kidnapped while hiking from his village on Mount Carmel to his military base near Haifa and nothing has been seen or heard of him since. As you drive through the Druze villages on Carmel, everywhere you see posters of Halabi and an amount of money in Israeli Shekels. The Druze people are having to resort to trying to raise a ransom payment for Halabi so they must have some form of intelligence that tells them he’s still alive. His case has not got a fraction of government attention and media coverage that was bestowed upon Shalit’s case, yet Halabi was also training to serve in defence of Israel. The only difference between him and Shalit is that he is not Jewish and his parents and community are of less interest to Government and media. While I may be seen by some as blindly pro-Israel, I hope that over time as I unpack thoughts and feelings I’m still trying to understand myself I’ll be seen as a bit more balanced and thinking than that. There are many, many things about what Israel does that I don’t agree with and which anger me. And the case of Majdi Halabi is just one of those.