The Betrayal of Gilad Shalit


Saturday was the 1,196th day in captivity for the soldier Gilad Shalit.

A prisoner of war must not be left in captivity. A wounded soldier must not be left in the field. The state signs an unwritten contract with every person who joins the army, and most definitely with everyone who serves in a combat unit.

The behavior of the Israeli governments in these 1,196 days, of the politicians and the generals who are responsible for this outrage, is a violation of this contract, a betrayal of trust. In short: an infamy. It enrages and infuriates every decent person, and not only combat soldiers.

The betrayal is already in the terminology used. In the words of the Book of Proverbs (18:21): "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

A soldier captured by the enemy in a military action is a prisoner of war – in every language, in every country.

Gilad Shalit was captured in a military action. He was an armed soldier in uniform. In this context, it does not matter whether the action itself was legal or illegal, and whether the captors were regular soldiers or guerrillas.

Gilad Shalit is a prisoner of war.

The denial started at the first moment. The Israeli government refused to call the capture by its proper name and insisted that it was an "abduction" or even "kidnapping."

The disciplined Israeli media, marching behind the generals in lockstep like the Prussian guard, joined the chorus. Not a single newspaper, not a single radio or TV announcer ever spoke about the "prisoner of war." All of them, almost without exception, from the first day on, spoke about the "abducted" or "kidnapped" soldier.

The words are important. All armies are familiar with exchanges of prisoners of war. Generally, this happens after the end of hostilities, sometimes while the war is still going on. The army releases the enemy fighters in return for the release of its own captured soldiers.

This does not apply to abducted persons. When criminals abduct a person and hold them for ransom, the question arises whether the price should be paid. Payment may encourage more abductions and reward the criminals.

The moment Gilad was defined as "abducted," he was condemned to what followed.

He also lost his honor as a soldier. A soldier is not "abducted." The millions of soldiers captured during World War II – Germans, Russians, Britons, Americans, and all the others – would have felt insulted by any suggestion that they were "abducted."

The greatest danger hovering over the head of Gilad since falling into captivity does not come from Hamas, but from our own army.

It was clear that, given an opportunity, the army would try to free him by force. That is deeply embedded in its basic ethos: Never give in to "abductors."

If I were Gilad’s father and a praying man, I would pray every day: Please, dear God, don’t let the army find out where Gilad is being kept!

Our army commanders are prepared to expose prisoners to immense risks in order to free them by force, instead of exchanging them for Palestinian prisoners. For them it is a matter of honor.

In such an operation, the lives of the liberators are put at risk. But above all, it’s the life of the prisoner that is endangered.

One of the most celebrated operations in the annals of the Israeli Army took place in Entebbe in July 1976. It freed the 98 passengers of a hijacked Air France plane, which had been forced to land at Entebbe airport in Uganda. The operation elicited worldwide admiration. Only one of the liberators lost his life – the brother of Binyamin Netanyahu.

In the ensuing intoxication of success, one fact was overlooked: in the daring operation huge risks were taken. If even one detail of the complex action had gone wrong, it would have meant disaster for the abducted passengers. It could have ended in a bloodbath. Since it succeeded, nobody dared to raise questions.

The results of the operation to release the abducted athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972 were very different. When the German police, with the encouragement of the Golda Meir government, tried to free them by force, all the athletes lost their lives. Most of them were probably killed by bullets from the guns of the German policemen. How else to explain the fact that to this very day, the governments of Israel and Germany have both refused to release the postmortem results?

The same happened two years later when the Israeli army was ordered by Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to free the 105 children who were being held by Palestinian commandos in the Northern Israeli town of Ma’alot. The action miscarried, and 22 children and 3 teachers lost their lives. In this instance, too, it seems that some – if not all – of them were killed by the bullets of the liberators. These postmortem reports also remain unpublished.

The same happened in 1994 when the army tried to free the "abducted" soldier Nachshon Waxman in the West Bank. The army had exact intelligence, the action was planned meticulously, something went wrong, and the prisoner was killed.

Lately it was learned that a senior officer had called on his soldiers to commit suicide rather than be captured. He has given orders to fire on the "abductors," even when it means endangering the life of the captured soldier.

It may well be that one of the reasons for the prolongation of Gilad Shalit’s suffering lies in the hope of the army commanders to obtain intelligence about his whereabouts, so as to try to free him by force. It is no secret that the Gaza Strip is crawling with informers. The dozens of "targeted killings" and many of the actions of the "Molten Lead" operation would not have been possible without a dense network of collaborators, recruited during the long years of the occupation.

Incredibly – it borders on a miracle – the Israeli security service has been unable to fulfill this hope. It seems that Shalit’s captors are succeeding in maintaining rigorous secrecy. That, by the way, explains why his captors have adamantly refused to have him meet with the International Red Cross representatives and to convey letters by and to him, including parcels (that could well have contained sophisticated locating devices). That may have saved his life.

It can be assumed that the video that was conveyed yesterday by the German mediator, in exchange for the release of 21 female Palestinian prisoners, was meticulously prepared so as to prevent any possibility of identifying the place where he is being kept.

This affair also shows the absolute superiority of the Israeli propaganda machine over all competitors – if there are any.

The world media have adopted, almost without exception, the Israeli terminology. All over the world, they talk about the "abducted" Israeli soldier, rather than about a prisoner of war. British or German newspapers that use this word would not dream of applying it to one of their own soldiers in Afghanistan.

The name of Gilad Shalit was mouthed by the world’s leaders as if he were, at the very least, one of them. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel spoke about him freely, certain that the listeners at home knew who he was. Liberating the "abducted Israeli soldier" has become a declared aim of several governments.

This formulation is by itself a triumph for Israeli propaganda. The negotiations are about an exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hamas, with German and/or Egyptian mediation. An exchange of prisoners has two sides – Shalit on the one side, Palestinian prisoners on the other. But throughout the world, as in Israel, they speak only about the release of the Israeli soldier. The Palestinian prisoners to be freed are just objects, merchandise, not human beings. But don’t they also count the days, like their parents and their children?

The greatest obstacle to such an exchange is mental, a matter of language. If it had been about "Palestinian fighters" there would have been no problem. The release of fighters in exchange for a fighter. But our government – like all colonial governments before it – cannot recognize local insurgents as "fighters" who act in the service of their people. The colonial ethos – like the "ethical code" of our ethical Professor Assa Kasher – demands that they be called "terrorists" with "blood on their hands," base criminals, vile murderers.

A touching Irish song tells of an Irish freedom fighter who, on the morning of his execution, asks to be treated like an "Irish soldier" and be shot, not "hanged like a dog." His request was denied.

When one speaks about the release of "hundreds of murderers" in exchange for an Israeli soldier, one runs up against a huge psychological obstacle. Life and death in the power of the tongue.

In several respects, the Gilad Shalit affair can be seen as a metaphor for the entire historical conflict.

Charged words dictate the behavior of the leaders. The different and opposing narratives prevent an understanding between the parties even about minor matters. The psychological obstacles are immense.

The great propaganda advantage of the Israeli government, so clearly shown in the Shalit affair, is now also being tested in the matter of the Goldstone report. The efforts of the Israeli government to prevent the referral of the report to the UN Security Council or General Assembly, or to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, are now supported by President Barack Obama and the European leaders. The inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, like the Palestinians in Israeli jails, have become mere tokens, objects without a human face.

And about Gilad Shalit: the negotiations must be speeded up so as to effect a prisoner exchange in the very nearest future. Until then, the mediators should be given an unequivocal undertaking that there will be no effort to free him by force, in return for an agreement by Hamas to let him meet with Red Cross personnel, and perhaps also with his family.

Everything else is manipulation and lip service.

Author: Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 he has advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974, Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the PLO leadership. In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yasser Arafat, after crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in the Israeli Knesset and is the founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc). Visit his Web site.