Still Waiting for Gilad Shalit
Today -- Wednesday, June 25, 2008 -- marks two years since IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in a cross-border raid and held captive in Gaza. In Israel, the significance of the day was inescapable: it was discussed in the media, in the schools, in the streets -- even across the Internet. As a show of solidarity, more than 50,000 Facebook members changed their profile pictures to a portrait of the young soldier and declared that they were waiting for him to return home.
The two-year anniversary of Shalit's captivity will be remembered as the time that Noam Shalit, the father of the young prisoner, lost his patience with the Israeli government and went public with his anger and frustration.
In a phone conversation with PJM, Noam Shalit stated, "I always said I would wait two years, and that if Gilad had not been released by the end of that period, I would go to the media. So that is what I am doing."
But his change in attitude could not be disconnected from the week's events. It was early in the week that he learned that the release of his son, who has been held hostage in Gaza since he was abducted by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid two years ago, was not, as he had been led to believe, linked to the six-day-old ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza's Hamas government. As a result, he no longer believes that the Israeli government is dealing with him in good faith.
This, apparently, was the final straw for the mild-mannered Iscar employee. He was already showing signs of impatience in an interview he gave to Ynet at the beginning of this month, following an unproductive meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"My impression from this meeting is very difficult," said Shalit. "We didn't hear anything new from the prime minister and he couldn't tell us about any progress being made."
Two weeks later, when the ceasefire went into effect while his son remained a hostage, contrary to what he had been led by the prime minister's office to believe, his sense of uneasiness proved well founded.
And this week, Noam Shalit launched a two-pronged attack -- one in the court of public opinion, and the other in the courts of law.
On June 21 the Shalits petitioned the Supreme Court to prevent Israel from reopening the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, pending the release of Gilad. The opening of the border crossings for the free transport of goods was a key condition to the ceasefire agreement. The Shalits fear that Israel will lose its leverage in negotiations for Gilad's release once the crossings are open.
The court dismissed the Shalits' petition two days later -- a decision of which they were informed via the nightly news broadcast. In a phone conversation today, however, Noam told this reporter that some aspects of the petition would be taken up in a private meeting between the cabinet and senior officers of the Israeli security services.
For the first time, the formerly soft-spoken father of the hostage soldier openly accused the prime minister of delaying his son's release. At a Jerusalem rally marking two years since Gilad's abduction, he said, "Mr. Prime Minister, you had two whole years for negotiations, for bargaining, for checking options, even for talking to Hamas. With unbelievable clumsiness, you failed to work for my son's release."
Shalit further said that the prime minister's office has failed to keep him informed via official channels of negotiations for his son's release.
Over the past few days Noam and his wife, Aviva, have given a series of unprecedented interviews to the Israeli media. Aviva, who had previously been almost zealous in guarding her privacy, spoke for the first time about the nightmare of knowing her son has been held in darkness and isolation, suffering from depression and ill health, for 730 days -- of being helpless in the face of his pleading that she and Noam bring him home.
Gilad was only 19 years old when he was abducted. He was a painfully shy, slightly geeky boy from a tiny Galilee village who liked math and basketball. Based on his army physical he should have had a desk job, but he insisted on being accepted to the tank corps, where his brother had served before him.
Earlier this month, the Shalits received a letter from Gilad, only the third in two years.
Dear Mom and Dad,
My dear family, I miss you very much. Two long and difficult years have passed since we last parted and I was forced to begin living life as a captive. I continue to suffer medical and psychological difficulties and the depression that is part of this sort of life.
As in my previous letters, I sincerely hope your mental and physical well being has not suffered since you began life without me. I still think and dream of the day I am freed and see you again, and still I keep the hope that that day is near, but I know it is not in your hands or in mine.
I call on the government not to neglect the negotiations for my release and direct its efforts only on the release of the soldiers in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, referring to Hamas's demand that Israel release prisoners convicted of involvement in serious terror attacks in exchange for Gilad's release, said on Monday that security prisoners should not be released as part of prisoner exchange deals in which the demanded "price" is too high.
Noam Shalit's response was unambiguous and cutting: "Yaalon was an army commander but today he is mainly a politician and a public activist. He and anyone else can determine a POW's fate only if it concerns their own son." Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman called Yaalon a "bully" who is taking advantage of Olmert's political weakness to throw his weight around in a way he would never have dared when Ariel Sharon was prime minister.
Negotiations for Gilad's release will continue in Cairo on Thursday, when the Israeli chief negotiator flies to the Egyptian capital for another round of talks. Meanwhile, several Qassams fired from Gaza yesterday landed harmlessly in open spaces in the western Negev.
Despite the violations, the fragile ceasefire appears to be holding. For how long? Only time will tell.