Saturday 3 October 2009

How Do We Respond to the Gilad Shalit Video?

The release of a video clip of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, by Hamas on Friday has given the Israeli government and Israeli public much to think about. It is the first real sign of life provided by Hamas since Gilad was captured more than 3 years ago. But should we read any significance into this first sign of life? Is there anything that we should interpret about the timing of the release of the video?

The release of the video came on the eve of the Jewish festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot). One of the symbols of the festival is the four species which are taken and blessed on each day of the festival. Each one has different characteristics and the significance of making the blessing on all four of the species is that all individuals in the Jewish nation are important, irrespective of their characteristics. This message is extremely important in the context of Gilad Shalit. He is an important part of Israel and the Israeli people, and has not been forgotten by his parents, friends, ordinary Israelis and government ministers alike. That one individual can capture the attention of an entire nation is entirely consistent with the message of Sukkot.

Where does the release of the video sit in the process of the negotiations for the release of Gilad? There have been various attempts to try to play down the significance of the release of the video. Messages from Hamas, the Israeli government and the Shalit family have all indicated that the public should not anticipate any further significant news on the back of the release of the video. There have also been conflicting messages from each of the parties, at least expressing hope that this act signals possible progress in the negotiations for his release.

To me, it is clear that such an act does not take place in a vacuum. It is obvious that Prime Minister Netanyahu was eager to show some early visible progress in the negotiations for Gilad's release. Even though the release of a video is far from gaining his release, it is more progress than has been shown to date. So Netanyahu will chalk this up as something of a success for himself. I see this act as more than a simple success for Netanyahu. I can imagine that the Israeli side, with help from the unnamed German negotiator, will have said to Hamas that there seems little point in continuing to discuss lists of names of Palestinians who may or may not be released in any deal if the Israelis cannot be sure that Shalit is still alive. So, as part of the larger process, a sign of life is critical. Prisoners were even released in exchange for the video, so this seems to be an initial step in wider negotiated deal. It may be true that the next steps are still not fully agreed, but this certainly feels part of a process.

More important than all of the above is the fact that there would seem to be a channel of communications open, facilitated by the Germans and the Egyptians. This channel has also demonstrated itself to be working, as evidenced by the receipt of the video. It is ultimately this successful channel that will bring Gilad home. For this reason, I have been delighted to see the arrival of the video. I am sure that it also brings some comfort to his family, especially during the festival of Sukkot.

The history of this sad case forces me to be cautious in my optimism that Gilad will be released any time soon. I cannot help, however, feeling more optimistic now than at any time in the past since his capture. It is his safety and the well-being of his family that are foremost in my mind. I trust that they will be taking strength from recent events. For the sake of Gilad and for that of his family, I sincerely hope that my optimism at this time will prove to be justified. I know that the Israeli public is with me in this hope.

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