It’s been four years. No one, probably not even the captors themselves thought the situation would last as long as it did. When a group of armed Palestinians ambushed an Israeli military post near the Kerem Shalom Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel and captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, in all fairness, they probably thought it would be days, months at most until the mighty Israeli army saved him.
That was four years ago. Gilad Shalit, who has since been promoted to staff sergeant, is Hamas’ best kept secret. Hidden somewhere in the Gaza Strip, the 23 year old soldier is seen only very occasionally in audio and video tapes that Hamas releases at strategic points in time, with Shalit pleading his government to accept a prisoner release that would secure his safe return home. Over the course of these four years, Egypt has mediated endless negotiations with Hamas, which has demanded the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the lone soldier, only to be rejected time and again. Several times, the swap seemed to have been in its last stages until Israel (or Hamas) nixed it again, usually under the pretext that a handful of prisoners Hamas demanded to be released had “Israeli blood on their hands.”
Four years later, Shalit is still no closer to being released than he was the first time Israel raided Gaza in a bid to set him free. This has not been lost on much of the Israeli public, first and foremost Shalit’s family who feel their government is not doing all it can to get their son home. “Pay any price” they demand from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Pay any price.” Thousands of Israelis are participating in a 12-day march, which will end on the lawn of the Prime Minister’s office, where the staunchest of protesters will camp out, ostensibly until a deal on Shalit is reached. We are aware of the `price` and that terrorists will be freed, but we expect results after four years,” Shalit’s father said to the crowd of supporters.
One might ask why a Palestinian is so interested in such an internal Israeli affair. Whether Israelis put pressure on their government to free Shalit or not does not seem like it should be a priority for Palestinians, at least not in the face of so many other pressing issues. However, Palestinians have a huge stake in Shalit’s future, namely because his fate hinges on the future of tens of thousands of Palestinian political prisoners languishing – some for years – in Israel’s prisons. Ironically, their capture is not an issue for the powers that be, many of whom were kidnapped right out of their own homes, before their families and carted off in the middle of the night to an unknown destination. There is not one Palestinian who has experienced this – unlike the single Israeli soldier – there are thousands.
This fact alone highlights just how lopsided and discriminatory this system of accountability is. Israel has raided the Gaza Strip numerous times in a bid to free Shalit, it has killed scores of Palestinians, clamped a strangulating siege on its people for three years and has managed to convince most of the world to ostracize Hamas, not only physically, but economically and politically from the rest of civilization. However, if Shalit’s case is looked at objectively, the Palestinians were way within their rights when they carried out the cross-border raid. Gilad Shalit was a soldier in the Israeli army, serving in an area where his sole purpose was to occupy the Palestinians. As an occupying soldier, he was vulnerable to attack, just like any occupying army in the world. The Palestinians did not attack civilians, they attacked soldiers, who were clearly in that place, at that time in order to oppress and occupy the residents of Gaza.
And so, Shalit was a legitimate target – a prisoner of war – so to speak. Whether one agrees with military action as a means of resistance or not, no one can refute the fact that the Palestinians – as an occupied people – have every right to resist that occupation.
In the meantime, thousands of Palestinian prisoners are also waiting for freedom. Much hullabaloo has been generated over Shalit but hardly any noise is made for the Palestinians, even though Israel repeatedly violates international law by holding them in detention centers in Israel (they are not supposed to be taken out of the occupied territory), refusing to allow them a fair trial, trying children like adults and holding them without evidence.
If nothing else, the more the Israeli public makes noise over Gilad Shalit, the more the Palestinians can use this to make their case for their own prisoners. If Shalit’s parents and supporters put enough popular pressure on Netanyahu’s government, shame them into cutting a deal to release Shalit, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinians could finally come home.
In any case, the Palestinians, just like the Israeli government, have fallen short in their efforts to get their own prisoners released. While the prisoner issue is always technically on the agenda of Palestinian negotiations, in recent years, the internal split between Hamas and Fateh and US pressures to get Israeli-Palestinian talks back on track have taken precedence. Hence, perhaps Shalit’s case and the Israeli public’s popular moves for their soldier will inadvertently wake the Palestinian leadership and people from their own daze and urge them to take a stronger stance for those who are behind Israeli bars in the name of freedom for us all.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.