The Ongoing Tragedy of Gilad Shalit

What’s being done to the free the Israeli soldier from his imprisonment by Hamas?

This year for the Passover Seder some Israeli families left a symbolic empty chair for Gilad Shalit, the soldier who was abducted by Hamas on June 25, 2006, and remains in captivity today. Nineteen years old at the time, he is described as “well-mannered, quiet and introverted”—an account that fits the clips of him that have been shown, in some periods with high regularity, on Israeli TV since his kidnapping.

Apparently both the Olmert and Netanyahu governments have judged that there is no military option for rescuing Shalit even though he’s located, so to speak, next door to Israel in Gaza. The Israeli defense establishment either doesn’t know more precisely where he is, or does know but regards the spot, and his situation—heavily guarded? surrounded by explosives?—as infeasible for a rescue attempt.

Somewhat surprisingly, about half a year ago the Netanyahu government was involved in negotiations with Hamas for Shalit’s release in return for a draconian number of terrorists, generally reported as about a thousand. It still wasn’t enough for Hamas and the negotiations broke down. Before they did Hamas released a coerced video of Shalit, made on September 14, 2009, in which he addressed his family members and spoke of his desire for freedom. In a segment this week on Israel’s Channel 2 news, Shalit’s parents said they had heard nothing of him since then, and possibly no one else in Israel has either.

As Shalit’s captivity approaches four years, the cruelty of what is being inflicted on him and his family—even if completely to be expected from a group like Hamas—is limitless. In stark contravention of international law, even the International Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him. Although Hamas has practical aims—coercing a higher price out of Israel, pressuring its government and its society more generally—the cruelty is also an expression of sheer hatred, a phenomenon in itself.

The phenomenon has a deeply sobering effect in Israel but does not necessarily impress others. When EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Gaza two weeks ago, there is no indication that she sought a meeting with Shalit or, as David Harris put it in an open letter to her, “press[ed] [her] hosts on why no one has been permitted to visit him since his abduction.” When, during her visit, a Thai worker in Israel was killed by a Hamas rocket, the most Ashton could say was “I condemn any kind of violence, we need to move forward to get the peace process moving toward a successful resolution.”

Ashton’s apparent softness or blindness toward Hamas is consistent with a trend: the EU’s official research institute, the Institute for Security Studies, has published a series of reports urging engagement with the Gaza-based group and others of its kind. The most recent, titled “Engaging Hamas: Rethinking the Quartet Principles,” argues that the EU’s three conditions for recognizing Hamas—renouncing violence, recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements—should be relaxed in the interests of “peace.” The paper makes no mention of Shalit.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her part, seemed to touch the right base last week in her speech to AIPAC by proclaiming that “Gilad Shalit must be released immediately and returned to his family.” But the Obama administration’s fervor to create a Palestinian state—reportedly within two years—exposes the shallowness of the words. Such a state would have to be ruled, at least in part, by Hamas. The administration can’t have missed that fact, but is not deterred by it.

Meanwhile Gilad Shalit has lost almost four years of his young life sitting in some cellar. Seriousness about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” presupposes relating to this with something beyond empty platitudes.