ISRAEL: Gilad Shalit, unhappy birthday


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797 days, two years and three birthdays ago, IDF corporal Gilad Shalit was kidnapped to Gaza in an attack that killed two other soldiers.

For two years, families, friends, activists and citizens campaigned tirelessly for the release of three Israeli soldiers. Two were returned in a swap with Hezbollah a month ago, but virtual memorial candles now burn beside their pictures on the website they shared with Shalit: they were dead.


But somewhere in the parallel existence that is Gaza, only two hours away from Tel-Aviv, Gilad Shalit is alive. And this week he is turning 22.

Friends and supporters are marking Shalit’s third birthday since his capture this week in a number of events held near the site of the attack, in Tel Aviv and the northern community of Mitzpe Hila, Shalit’s home.

Families of MIAs and hostages have learned from past experience of others. News breaks constantly in Israel, where the worst thing is to disappear from the public agenda. Staying on top of it is a constant, draining effort for families but falling from it is a luxury they cannot afford.

Ordinary citizens help carry the load, in spontaneous and organized events. Awareness vigils are held at junctions and many locations throughout the country, including outside the Prime Minister’s residence. Volunteers maintain duty rosters to ensure all posts are manned. A group gathers every evening at Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv. Sometimes they sing, sometimes it’s something else in solidarity. Two months ago, a group of runners launched a weekly 5-mile run through the streets of Tel-Aviv carrying flags bearing Shalit’s image; they have pledged to keep running every Saturday night until his release.

A month ago, the 71st brigade of the Barak battalion of the IDf’s armored corps was released from the mandatory three year service. All but one. Shalit’s army friends marched straight from the central discharge center to the defense ministry in Tel-Aviv to rally for their friend.

And there are virtual campaigns, too. Many Facebook members had replaced their pictures with one of Gilad Shalit on the anniversary of his abduction, and a mock blog written by Shalit was launched on an Israeli site. Intended to be mildly biting with a digestible amount of black humor and criticism, one post ‘describing life in captivity’ infuriated a former war prisoner, Uri Shahak. The name of the foundation that he and other former POWs formed years ago is self-explanatory: Erim Ba’Layla: awake at night. Remembering their own captivity, members of the group supported the birthday rally held by the Gaza border this week.


Israel has paid generously to retrieve its sons; usually it can afford the price, but not always the political fallout. Now it is engaged in indirect negotiations with Hamas. The Palestinians have probably learned from Hezbollah and are driving a hard bargain, demanding that Israel release hundreds of prisoners that Israel defines as having ‘blood on their hand’ -- a criterion it had previously defined as a red line vis a vis the Palestinians. Israel rejected the majority of the list, agreeing to release only 80 of the 450. A ministerial committee appointed to examine the possible flexing of criteria will convene again next week.

The Palestinians have threatened to turn Shalit into a second Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator whose fate remains unknown after his plane was shot down over Lebanon 22 years ago. Egypt is mediating between the two sides and reportedly would like to see the matter resolved in a month. But lately, the rhetoric around the negotiations seems to have taken a turn for the worse, with Israel rumored to threaten to begin assassinating Hamas leaders within a month and Palestinians threatening that if Israel continues to refuse to negotiate for his release, it will soon be negotiating over his body. This week, defense minister Barak met with the Egyptian leadership to discuss this issue, among others.

Speaking at a rally Wednesday, minister Ami Ayalon said the state’s moral obligation to return Shalit outweighs any risk posed by releasing murderers in return. This is the ministers’ test. Those who fail it will be unworthy, he said.

Miki Goldwasser was also there. A month after burying her son Udi, returned by Hezbollah in an exchange deal, she is there for the Shalits. ‘We embarked on a journey together,’ she recently said, ‘and this journey will not end until Gilad is home.’

Noam Shalit used to be an engineer in a high-tech company. He still works there. But his real job is being ‘Gilad’s father,’ as he is known to nearly every Israeli from countless media interviews and campaign events. Soft-spoken and gentle, Israelis admired his conduct and hard work for his son’s release, even when his conciliatory approach took on a bitter, critical tone.

This week he sounded dejected. Aside of a ray of hope of French involvement (Shalit bears French citizenship too), he had trouble finding optimism. For 26 months, he said, Gilad has paid the price of government procrastination and indecision, while the state avoids paying the price for his release. And Hamas doesn’t seem in much of a hurry either, he says. They know their prisoners are fine.


‘I am not in a position to make demands on Hamas,’ he said. ‘But I do demand that the state of Israel that sent Gilad on a mission from which he didn’t return bear responsibility for his wellbeing, and bring him home.’

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Top: Gilad Shalit flag over a window in a youth movement chapter. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times.

Middle pair: Running 8 kms through Tel-Aviv to raise awareness; carrying a flag with Shalit’s image on the right is Ayana, the organizer. Credits: Amir Cohen/

Bottom pair: Vigils outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem; sign on left: ‘free Gilad today.’ Credits: Sharon Vider-Picker, whose two-year documentation of the vigils is currently on exhibit in Jerusalem.

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