Five years on, Shalit’s imprisonment an open wound for Israel

Noam Shalit, father of kidnapped israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, sits unerneath a banner depicting his son, and late kidnapped soldier Ron Arad (R), in a protest tent set up in support of Gilad’s release outside the Prime Minister’s residence in jerusalem on June 02, 2011. Former Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Muhammad Basyuni claimed that a deal for the release of Shalit would be announced “within a few hours”. The Prime Minister’s Office responded saying “no breakthrough” had been made in the continuing talks for Shalit’s release. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

By Linda Gradstein, JTA

JERUSALEM — Michal Naamani went to Jerusalem from her home in a town near Kfar Saba on Friday to hand out yellow ribbons to passersby and bumper stickers to motorists reading “Gilad is alive.”

A high school teacher, Naamani felt she wanted to do something to help Israel’s captive soldier, Gilad Shalit.

“I’m a mother. I have a younger brother doing reserve duty,” Naamani told JTA. “I’m here because if it was my son, I would want someone to support me as well.”

Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture in a raid on the Gaza-Israel border that left two other soldiers dead. Shalit’s family members have done practically everything they can think of to keep their son in the public eye. Last year, they marked the anniversary of his capture by marching from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem, with thousands of Israelis joining them for part of the way. This year, Yoel Shalit, Gilad’s brother, disrupted Israel’s state ceremony on Israeli Independence Day.

Five years on and without a clear sign that a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas is in the offing or even that their son is still alive, the Shalits have become a symbol of what Israelis — whose children are subject to mandatory military service — fear most.

“Gilad Shalit is every Israeli parent’s worst nightmare,” Israeli journalist Stuart Schoffman told JTA.

Some Israelis say Shalit also has become a symbol of Israelis’ frustration with Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip and that is believed to have authority over Shalit’s captors. A few Israeli military officials have expressed concern that Shalit’s capture might sap motivation among young Israelis to sign up for combat units in the Israel Defense Forces.

But Meir Elran, an expert on the Israeli army at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says motivation remains high.

“Thousands and thousands of people were killed in battle in the last 63 years,” he said. “People who go to combat units know that this is a dangerous business and you take a risk of not coming back.”

Shalit was 19 when he was taken captive. Today, assuming he is alive, he is 24. Despite repeated requests, including one this week, the Red Cross has never been allowed to visit Shalit.

He is believed to be held somewhere in Gaza, probably in an underground bunker. His face has become ubiquitous in Israel — seen on posters, balloons, T-shirts and bumper stickers. The Israeli public has not gotten any sign of life of Shalit since September 2009, when a video was released showing Shalit looking wan but unharmed. Hamas has rejected an appeal by the Red Cross for a new video.

For several years, Israel has been negotiating with Hamas indirectly over Shalit. Hamas’ demands have not changed: the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, among them dozens of men convicted of murdering Israelis.

This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that because Hamas would not allow Shalit a Red Cross visit, Israel would be stiffening conditions for Palestinians in Israeli jails convicted of terrorism, eliminating, among other things, their ability to obtain an academic degree while in prison.

A survey released this week found that 63 percent of Israelis support a deal to free Shalit. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks and even rumors that the deal was on the verge of being signed. Some Israeli analysts say that Hamas needs the PR boost that a large-scale prisoner release would give it, especially if Palestinian elections take place in the next year. In Gaza, support for Hamas has dropped, and recent polls show Hamas trailing far behind the more moderate Fatah.

Yet unless Hamas significantly softens its demands, the chances of a deal appear slim.

Schoffman says this has fueled public dissatisfaction with Netanyahu.

“It has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the current government, regardless of one’s political affiliation,” he said. “Most Israelis say: ‘Make this happen already,

this is outrageous.'”

Israel has agreed to swap deals with terrorist groups twice in recent memory. In 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a prisoner exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, a reservist in the Israeli army who was lured to Lebanon for a prospective drug deal and then taken hostage by Hezbollah. Israel released 435 Lebanese prisoners in exchange for Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers Hezbollah had in its possession.

In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to release five prisoners, including a notorious Lebanese man serving four life sentences for murder, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. The soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were taken captive days after Shalit’s capture in a Hezbollah attack thought to have killed them and which sparked the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

On Friday, Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, spent the morning at a memorial ceremony for one of the soldiers who was killed the day that Shalit was captured. Then they came to Jerusalem to spend Shabbat in the protest tent opposite the prime minister’s residence, a fixture now for several years.

A studio in Tel Aviv is marking the anniversary by building a mock prison cell similar to the cell in which Shalit is believed to be held. Starting Saturday night, Israeli writers, actors and former prisoners each were slated to spend one hour in the cell in solidarity with Shalit.

“We’re different from other countries that would never let 1,000 prisoners go for just one soldier,” Naamani, the teacher, said. “He went to protect this country and we owe it to him and his family to bring him back.”