Three years ago yesterday, to the day, I arrived on the balmy shores of Tel Aviv to begin a turbulent two-year assignment. On my journey from the airport I remember being gob-smacked by the Miami-style shoreline of Tel Aviv, the stunning women in high heels and bikinis, the party all-night-long atmosphere, the Mojito fountains and cold beer washing away the humidity of that World Cup summer.
I was accommodated in a small family run hotel right next to Tel Aviv’s best Irish pub, Molly Blooms (who also happens to be one of my favourite fictional characters). That night I wasted no time in getting to know my new environment and parked myself at Molly’s counter to watch Argentina beat Mexico two one after extra time and got to know some people with whom I have remained friends to this day.
The following morning, 25th of June, a groggy Sunday (for Sunday is a work day in this part of the world), I arrived in good time to begin my orientation when the news of an event on the Israeli-Gaza border near Kerem Shalom came filtering in. We soon learned that a young Israeli corporal, only 19 at the time, called Gilad Shalit, had been taken hostage by Palestinian militants after a daring ambush on an Israeli border patrol. It later emerged that the Palestinians had tunnelled their way under the Israeli position, exiting on the other side and ambushing the unwitting soldiers from the rear as they peered towards Gaza.
This was a rare event indeed in these trouble lands, not least because it also involved high-level planning and coordination between an array of Palestinian factions (Hamas eventually took control of the Strip and responsibility for Gilad’s detention). The International Red Cross, with whom I worked, was quickly involved in trying to negotiate access, to ensure that his dignity was being respected in accordance with international law, to assess his health and to convey messages from and to his devastated family.
I personally liaised with Gilad’s family on many occasions and remember my first visit a week or so afterwards, to their home in the beautiful northern part of Israel along the border with Lebanon. They were an extremely courteous, welcoming and dignified family who were genuinely interested in hearing from me the situation faced by Palestinians on a day to day basis inside Gaza. There was no hatred, no bitterness, just pure loss and shock. Over the course of two years we met frequently but the Red Cross could do little to convince Hamas to allow us visit or even to pass some ‘sign of life’ to Gilad’s suffering family.
This is a cruel game in the Middle East (more than most parts of the world to my knowledge) where prisoners are used as bargaining chips with little regard for the rights of families to know the fate of their missing loved ones. I experienced the same harrowing scenes with the parents of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were captured by Hezbollah along the Lebanon border, on July 12, 2006, (not far from where Gilad’s parents live as it happens) only weeks after Gilad’s abduction.
Hezbollah played the same game – giving false hope for two years to the families of Eldad and Ehud. A terrible 34 day war was sparked by this abduction which resulted in little more than the needless killing of over one thousand Lebanese civilians and 43 Israelis. On July 16, 2008, their bodies were returned to Israel via the Red Cross, in an Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap. An Israeli army examination of the bodies determined that the two reservists were probably killed during the initial attack that led to their abduction. So once more, along the scenic high coastal cliffs that separate Israel from Lebanon, Israeli corpses and body parts were traded for ‘live’ or fallen Lebanese. In the cruel reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict one can at least determine that Ehud and Eldad’s family have closure; they now know that fate of their sons, awful though that may be.
This is not the case for Gilad’s family. They must continue to struggle without knowing whether their son and brother is still alive. If he is, what is the condition of his health? How has he fared psychologically, living – most probably – deep underground in Gaza's darkness without the most basic of foods or comforts? Not knowing whether he’ll be traded or killed from one minute to the next.
Gilad’s abduction also kicked off a futile, violent conflict, coded Summer Rains, which left about 250 Palestinians dead. This military operation was quickly followed by two others: Autumn Cloud and Warm Winter (the Israelis can be quiet poetic when it comes to naming their military ops). And, most recently, almost six months ago, the terrible escalation in December 27th 2006, that saw more than one thousand Palestinians die (and was code named Operation Cast Lead, in case of interest).
It is assumed that Gilad survived all these onslaughts which failed to release him or even determine his whereabouts. And certainly failed to pressure Hamas at the negotiation table (if in fact there really is such a table). I remember speaking to a Palestinian friend of mine about Gilad in Gaza shortly after operation Summer Rain and asked him how most people felt on the streets. “We are jubilant” he said. “Finally we have something the Israelis want”. That ‘something’ of course is a very young guy with a loving family who is also compelled by his country to do his military service.
I know there are more than 10’000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, rightly or wrongly - and I visited many of them personally. But all of them are registered and their whereabouts are known to the Red Cross and to their families. Their families and Red Cross officials also have the right to visit and this right is exercised on a monthly basis. Although, in the tit-for-tat pressure politics of the region, Gazan families are being denied visits to their relatives in Israeli jails.
But that’s not a debate I want to enter now – now I am thinking about Noam and Aviva Shalit and their young family in the beautiful hills of north Israel and how three years later they still wait for their young son to return home. It is a real tragedy that has befallen this pivotal region when cynical blackmail becomes commonplace with attempts to justify. After all, two wrongs do not make a right still underscores the international legal norms against reciprocity in the rules of war.
My thoughts wander back to those early days in Israel-Palestine and how I was so quickly jolted out of my Miami-style World Cup summer reverie. I never did get back to the beach much and I never saw much more of the World Cup thanks to operation Summer Rain, the war in Lebanon and all the rest of the turmoil that so easily follows week on week in this region. "Full gas in neutral" an Arab-Israeli friend called it - lots of noise and smoke but going nowhere.
I leave the last word to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch: "Hamas authorities have no excuse for cutting off Shalit from his family and the outside world for three years. Punishing Shalit for grievances against Israel is unjust and unlawful."