Sunday 26 June 2011

Five Years and No Signs of Life

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas operatives on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. Five unrelenting years have passed without any outside organisation having been allowed access to the young soldier at all. His parents have fought a tireless battle to keep their son's name on the agenda of the politicians, and on the lips and in the conscience of all members of the public.

How can such a situation arise, that five years are allowed to pass without any meaningful progress in securing Gilad's release? Even Terry Waite was not forced to endure this length of captivity, and was released before 5 years had passed. The psychological impact on Waite of those years behind bars was dramatic (see The Long Waite), so what can we possibly hope for Gilad, if and when he is released?

The intentions behind Hamas's decision to capture and hold Gilad were always based on pure evil. It was their view that they would be able to secure the release of Hamas terrorists held in Israeli jails, to allow them to return to kill and maim Israeli civilians. This view has been strengthened by the never-ending negotiations that have been ongoing between Israel and Hamas for the release of Gilad. These talks, sometimes facilitated by German mediators and sometimes by Egyptians, have focused on the number of Hamas prisoners that will be released, the specific names on the list and whether they will be released to the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere. The Israeli demand is a simple one - to release Gilad safely into the hands of his parents. When dealing with organisations like Hamas (or like Hezbollah in the case of the capture of Terry Waite), their evil seems to know no bounds. There is no way of knowing what they might truly be prepared to agree to in order to release Gilad, and to what extent these protracted negotiations are simply a game to keep their name in the international headlines. The last communication and sign of life from Gilad was more than two years ago. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has repeatedly been denied access to him, contravening all international accepted norms in this respect. The latest appeal by the ICRC last week showed major concern about his well-being on their part. This time, they did not demand a sign of life, but immediate access to him. As before, the request was refused.

As time goes by, things certainly get worse. This applies particularly to the possibilities of seeing Gilad alive again. The capture of Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad is proof of that. Arad was captured in 1986 after bailing out of his plane over Lebanon. He was variously reported to have been held in Lebanon, Syria and Iran, but has never been seen since. A secret Israeli military report claimed that he died of an illness in 1995. The problem is that those that originally captured him were reported to have had no idea where he was, or who held him by that time. The trail became remote and cold. Simply to follow the track of where he was, and under whose responsibility, became an impossible task. The same danger exists for Gilad. Some of those who were involved in his original capture have been killed in operations with Israeli forces. Is he still being held in Gaza, or has he been smuggled via the tunnels into Egypt and then to who-knows-where? The more time that passes makes the tracking of his whereabouts increasingly difficult, and the prospects of his safe release increasingly remote.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed mediators on behalf of the government to focus on this one matter, to bring Gilad home via a negotiated deal. He has accepted the involvement of the German and Egyptian mediators to resolve the issue. This has all been to no avail, as the ultimate goal has yet to be achieved. His latest statement on the matter is no different than the previous ones he has made. This amounts to stating that complying with the Hamas request for a prisoner swap would endanger too many Israelis. This is reference to the fact that those who would be released in terms of Hamas's demands are those terrorists who have killed Israelis, and would do so again. He is, of course, showing some respect to the families of those who have been killed by these evil beasts. The problem is that, by keeping them in jail, no lives can be returned. By releasing them from jail, there is a life that can be returned. This must surely be the main consideration.

I don't accept the statements by the prime minister, that the deal cannot be done because too many people's lives will be endangered by doing so. While I do agree that imprisoning key individuals has contributed to a reduction in the attacks that Israel has been forced to endure from both Gaza and the West Bank, I also feel that there are ways of managing a process of releasing these beasts in return for them releasing Gilad. We have previously released individuals like Sheik Ahmed Yassin in prisoner swaps, who then immediately returned to his evil ways of orchestrating terror attacks on Israelis. He ultimately paid for this with his life when an Israeli Air Force strike killed him. Any deal to release terrorist prisoners will require extremely good Israeli intelligence to track these individuals following their release. Any sign of activities on their part to hurt Israelis, should be met with immediate action to eliminate them. Not only will this remove them and their evil ways from the picture, it will also reduce the inclination on the part of Hamas to capture Israelis to force a prisoner swap. There will be no prisoners to swap.

It is my view that there are enough terrorists running around the streets of the West Bank and Gaza willing to do harm to Israelis, such that the release of the prisoners will not make such a big impact on the situation. For every one sitting in jail, there are probably ten on the streets. Now is the time for the prime minister to act decisively. His announcement last week to rescind rights to academic study for terrorist prisoners does not go nearly far enough. The ironic calls by Hamas that this step contravenes the human rights of these prisoners is simply a joke. Since when has Hamas been concerned with human rights?

Mr Prime Minister, I call on you to accept whatever deal is on the table to bring Gilad home without further delay. This will not increase the danger in which the State of Israel lives, nor the danger that soldiers will be captured in the future. These are ever-present dangers that we are forced to live with, and confront on a daily basis. It will, however, send an important message to the Shalit family and to families up and down Israel whose children serve in the IDF. This is the message that you and the Israeli government will be prepared to do everything, everything to return our children under such difficult circumstances. The strength of this message is far more important than the message that is sent to Hamas regarding the number of prisoners that you are releasing. This decision is also likely to shape the legacy of your time in office. After all, you will forever be remembered as the prime minister who brought Gilad home. Now is the time to act, and to act soon before it is, G-d forbid, too late.

Please say a prayer for Gilad's safe return.

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