Last night before I went to sleep all reports from Israel suggested that negotiations in Egypt between Israeli and Hamas officials were on the verge of achieving a deal for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This morning it was the main news from Israel in both of our broadsheets. The Australian carried the story ‘Olmert’s last hope to liberate soldier’ while Jason Koutsoukis sounded an alarming note with ‘Bid to free Israeli soldier frustrated’ in the Age.
The heartbreaking reality came when I checked the Israeli press this morning and discovered that the talks had stalled. According to Olmert’s special envoy on the prisoner exchange Ofer Dekel and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, not only has Hamas not shown any sort of flexibility on the matter but it has actually toughened its stance on the issue. Israel has been the negotiating for the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Many of the prisoners on the Hamas list have been responsible for some of the most heinous attacks against Israel, but the Israelis have been willing to pay this very painful price for the return of one young soldier (see more here and here).
Israeli Cabinet was to meet today at 2pm Israeli time in order to finalize the deal but now that the talks have been stalled outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will tell the Cabinet that “Israel has drawn back its red lines as far as possible but Hamas foiled the negotiations. Under these conditions it is not possible to reach an agreement.”
For the family of Gilad Shalit, who have set up a protest tent outside Ehud Olmert’s house in Jerusalem, this heralds another blow during an already long and painful journey. On Saturday, 21 March 2009, it will be one thousand days since Gilad was abducted. He will have endured one thousand days in which he was denied even the most basic human rights. His parents will have tried to sleep through one thousand nights without knowing his fate or what will happen tomorrow. For the rest of us, it is difficult to simply comprehend how for every milestone in our lives we might have passed over those past thousand days that Gilad Shalit has been silently sitting and waiting in a dungeon in the darkest corner of Gaza.
To complicate the matter further, this was possibly Olmert’s last chance to finalize a deal before a new government takes control of the country. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu has been trying to form a coalition, and yesterday signed a deal which would see Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu join the coalition, with Lieberman as Foreign Minister (see more). For Hamas, a deal with a right-wing government will be much harder to broker, and in any event, many believe that Netanyahu wants the deal to be made before he comes in to power.
Sadly, one must wonder whether Hamas really wants to make a deal at all on Gilad Shalit. According to Hamas one Israeli life costs a thousand Palestinian lives. Hamas declares it wants a lasting truce and it wants all border crossings into Israel and Egypt to be opened. But does it really want these things or does it simply suit its world agenda to say so and do nothing more to achieve them?
There are those who say that we should talk to Hamas and make deals with them as the elected government of the Palestinians. Others say, “If I were Hamas, I would do this and that …” and suggest that it is possible to make peace with them. Perhaps this is one of the problems. Is it possible to get inside of the heads of those who hold people against their will, who use their women and children as human shields, who use places of worship and hospitals as a cover for terrorist activity and who torture and murder people with different beliefs of political alliances at a whim? How on earth can the inclusion in discussion of a group that calls on its people (including kindergarten age children) to commit genocide lead to peace?
Interestingly, I have come across many opinion pieces in the Israeli press that have been asking the difficult questions about a prisoner exchange. I do not necessarily agree with all of the viewpoints, but I applaud the fact that Israel has a free press that allows people the right to be critical of the government and her choices. You may not agree with the viewpoints either, but the following articles should certainly evoke some thought and emotion:
Israeli media helping Hamas, Ynet News
Shalit affair out of control, Ynet News
Tough call for Hamas, Ynet News
On Shalit deal, Hamas-Israel gaps are greater than common ground, Haaretz
Are Olmert’s effort to reach Shalit deal just an alibi?, Haaretz
Don’t protest for Shalit, protest for the release of prisoners, Haaretz
Despite pitfalls, Israel should strike a deal with Hamas, Jerusalem Post
Israelis and the Jewish people as a whole have always survived on the idea of hope. This is reflected in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, which talks about the ultimate hope of returning to our homeland lasting two thousand years. “To be a free people in our own land”; it is such an important ideal, it is repeated twice. Gilad Shalit deserves to be a free person in his own land, and I will continue to hope that this will become a reality.
The Zionist Council of Victoria has released a press release urging support as Gilad nears 1,000 days in captivity. You can read it online here.
Israel Advocacy Analyst
Zionist Council of Victoria