JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Hamas-Israel cease-fire’s fiercest critics are those some expected to be its greatest beneficiaries: the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Having pursued a largely low-key campaign for the liberation of their son since he was abducted by Hamas-led gunmen two years ago, Noam and Aviva Shalit have reacted furiously to the exclusion of their son from the Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce.
On Sunday, the Shalits filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding that one of the key components of the cease-fire – the easing of Palestinian movement across the Gaza border – be blocked until Israel commit to retrieving their son.
And in a slew of media interviews, the couple accused Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of potentially having destroyed any chance of getting the 21-year-old hostage back soon – or even ever. Enlisting Gilad in absentia, they published a recent handwritten letter in which he wrenchingly begs to be freed.
Their criticism has roiled the Israeli public and fueled public debate about the efficacy of Israel’s cease-fire with Hamas.
A poll in last Friday’s Yediot Acharonot found that 78 percent of Israelis think the Gaza truce should have been conditioned on Shalit going free, while only 15 percent disagreed. Asked if they agreed with Noam Shalit’s assertions that his son had been “forsaken” by the state, 68 percent of respondents said yes and 24 percent said no.
The public’s outrage may seem surprising given the Olmert government’s repeated assurances that Shalit is integral to the truce, which began June 20. Olmert is to fly to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt this week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on speeding Shalit’s release.
“The ‘calming agreement’ is, for the time being, the best means of creating a framework and an umbrella to propel forward a process of discussion, under the auspices of Egypt, which we hope will culminate with the return of Gilad Shalit,” Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry negotiator representing the state at the High Court, told Israel Radio.
Yet Hamas has said otherwise, denying any direct linkage between the suspension of hostilities and Shalit.
“We separated Shalit and the truce,” said Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza and deposed Palestinian prime minister. “The Israelis and their leaders have so far undermined reaching a prisoner exchange because they are not accommodating the Palestinian demands.”
Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Israel has balked at some of the names on Hamas’ list, arguing that returning mass murderers to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip would be disastrous for the embattled, relatively moderate Palestinian Authority.
But in recent days Israeli officials have hinted that they could relax their criteria. Israel hopes for similar flexibility from Hamas, though it has shown no signs of that.
The ace up Israel’s sleeve is Rafah, the main terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border, which was shut by Cairo after Hamas seized control of Gaza a year ago. Israeli officials say Rafah will not reopen unless there is “significant progress” in efforts to free Shalit, though what this would constitute remains unclear.
Noam Shalit has argued that Rafah could provide a conduit for Hamas to spirit out his son to a location where he will never be found.
“We all remember what happened with Ron Arad, how he was handed from one group to another and eventually disappeared,” Noam Shalit said in one interview, referring to the Israeli airman who bailed out of a plane over Lebanon in 1986, was captured and then disappeared. Israeli intelligence believes Arad was captured by Lebanese Shiite militiamen and later transferred to Iran, where many suspect he was killed.
When they announced they were filing their court petition, the Shalits found surprise support from Tammy Arad, the normally reclusive wife of the missing Israeli air force navigator.
“Captivity is a terminal disease. The chances of retrieval are in your hands,” Tammy Arad wrote in an open letter to the court. “Do not take away Gilad’s hopes of returning to his family. Do not take away Aviva’s and Noam’s hopes of reuniting with Gilad, of holding him in their arms again.”
On Monday, Israel’s high court denied the Shalits’ petition.
Israeli defense officials are doubtful about whether Hamas would want Gilad Shalit to be anywhere other than Gaza. Taking him out through the Egyptian Sinai would risk a clash between the Palestinians and Cairo.
Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who is now helping the Shalits, said another concern is that, with Israel’s military and economic pressure on Gaza eased, Hamas will have less of an incentive to make a prisoner swap.
“Due to the siege and the closure, Hamas sought Egypt’s help in achieving a ‘calm,’ and its leaders undoubtedly understood that in exchange for the ‘calm,’ they would have to soften their demands for prisoners,” Weisglass wrote in Yediot Acharonot. “But no. Israel did not demand this. Israel, for some reason, consented for the matter of the kidnapped soldier to be discussed after the removal of the siege and closure.”
“Now, when the Gazans can breathe easy, Hamas will no longer have a reason to hurry and renew the negotiations, and certainly no reason to end it with any concession on their part,” Weisglass continued. “An Israeli hostage is not a bad thing: He is a pretext for a great many interviews, talks, trips around the world. In the end, Israel will also pay dearly for him. What could be bad about this? Why rush?”
Jerusalem officialdom also sees the strategy of keeping Shalit in captivity as a Hamas bid to safeguard its leaders against Israeli assassination attempts. In the past, Hamas has hinted it would execute Shalit in retaliation for a major Israeli strike.
Israeli officials insist that pursuing Shalit’s release in the atmosphere of a Gaza truce is the best option, given the dearth of alternatives.
A rescue raid is unlikely to succeed, given past experience with other captive soldiers and Israeli intelligence assessments that Shalit is being held in a booby-trapped underground bunker and watched by an elite team of Hamas gunmen ready to kill him and themselves. Wider Israeli military strikes in Gaza so far have proven fruitless in retrieving the soldier.
Gilad, the Defense Ministry official, said the best chance lies with Egyptian mediation.
“The Egyptians promised to muster all their resources to open contacts” on Shalit’s return, Gilad said. “Compared to other options, this is the best one at the moment. Actually, it’s the only one that exists. There are those criticizing harshly, and though the strength of the words may be impressive, no one is offering a better alternative.”