Thursday 27 November 2008

The Long Waite

I recently completed reading the autobiography of Beirut hostage Terry Waite. His book entitled "Taken on Trust" is excellently written and a worthwhile read. It has, however, left me feeling bewildered.

Terry Waite was the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy dealing with Middle East hostages. He worked tirelessly to negotiate the release of hostages held by various extremist groups around the Middle East, including those who were connected to the church as well as those who were not. He enjoyed some success in securing the release of a number of captives before he himself was captured in Beirut in January 1987. He was held for a total of 1,763 days, of which nearly 4 years was in solitary confinement. Waite's story is one of mental strength and survival. But, more than anything, his story is one of humility and modesty. Beyond describing facts regarding his treatment in captivity and some of his thoughts and frustrations during this time, Waite astonishingly has no bad word for his captors nor Hezbollah, the organisation which they represented.

I could not read one page of this book without thinking about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in captivity by Hamas for the past two and a half years. I could not help wondering whether he is being held in similar conditions to those described by Waite, whether he is being treated in the same inhumane way as Waite, whether he is also being chained to his cell and denied exercise and sunlight like Waite, whether he is also being allowed only one toilet visit each day and whether he has the mental strength to get through his ordeal. Terry Waite is undoubtedly a man of incredible mental fortitude, and yet the scars left on him by his ordeal will haunt him for the rest of his days. So how can we expect Gilad, who recently celebrated his 22nd birthday in captivity, to be holding up? The thought is a troubling one.

Unlike Waite, I have no qualms about wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try to think about what type of people would subject innocent human beings to this sort of treatment. If it was an isolated incident, it could be justified as an uncoordinated action by a renegade group of extremists. Unfortunately, this is not isolated and the group is not renegade. This is a policy adopted and condoned by many different groups around the Middle East. There is one thing that these groups have in common - they are all Muslim extremists. Do we, therefore, conclude that this is an action adopted to advance the Muslim cause? It is difficult not to. How can we justify having anything to do with such people? These are the people that Israel is being pressurised to sign a peace agreement with, in accordance with which a state bordering Israel will be created. Are these the neighbours that we would choose to live with? It is true to say that I am creating a generalisation about Muslims on the basis of actions of some of them. My problem is that I do not hear or see the so-called moderate Muslims standing up and opposing the horrifying policy of hostage-taking. Either they are quiet, or they are in quiet agreement. My interpretation is the latter.

There has been much criticism of the handling of the Gilad Shalit case by the Israeli government. I have to admit being part of this chorus in chiding the government for not doing more to get Shalit released before today. Having read Waite's book and taken further note of some of the recent press reports on this saga, I acknowledge that the criticism may not be entirely justified. It seems as though the requirements set by Hamas for his release are being continuously moved and revised. Each time the Israeli government begins to consider a proposal and to find logical ways to accommodate it or find a reasonable compromise, Hamas withdraws the offer. Even the Egyptians, who have been acting as facilitators in the exchange negotiations, have expressed their frustrations at Hamas. A cynic may conclude that they are more interested in playing mind games than achieving anything in a prisoner swap.

It is inevitable that people may bring the US prison in Guantanamo Bay as an example of how non-Muslims perpetrate similar criminal behaviour. Whilst not trying to condone the manner in which the Americans have handled Guantanamo Bay, and particularly the length of time taken to process the prisoners there, I find it very easy to distinguish between this and hostage-taking. If Gilad Shalit had received the most basic access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and if his captors had provided his family with some information about his well-being, there may have been room for a discussion. But, by denying him even these most basic rights set out in the Geneva Convention, the hostage-takers set themselves apart as the most inhumane of people.

In his postscript, Terry Waite relates that he heard, subsequent to his release, that some of those who were responsible for guarding him were later shot due to the fact that "they knew too much". How can we possibly expect to hold a sensible negotiation with people like this? And yet, for Gilad's sake, we have no choice.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for your generous comments about my book written many years ago now. You point out very clearly that we live in an imperfect world where men and women of all persusations behave in ways that are far from just. As far as my own position goes,although I have been very angry with my captors I have not allowed that anger to turn to bitterness which does more harm to those who hold it that to those against whom it is held. Like you, I do not condone ill treatement of anyone no matter what their background or belief.
Witk kind regards,
Terry Waite CBE