Hamas just released footage of 23-year-old Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit, whose capture in 2006 has been the cause of much worry and political pressure on the Israeli government to see his safe return. Israel, a country born from the need for a safe haven for the Jewish people, justifiably has a “no man left behind” mentality when it comes to its IDF soldiers. If you didn’t know who Shalit was before, spend a few minutes walking around the marketplaces in Tel Aviv and you’ll see “Free Gilad” shirts and signs everywhere.
In a deal between Israel and Hamas, Israel released 19 of its female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a roughly three-minute proof-of-life video that shows Shalit in a barren room, reading from a newspaper dated September 14 and addressing his family, friends and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Originally 20 prisoners were to be released at the same time, but one was actually released a few days earlier for good behavior. A substitute was found and released shortly after the original 19.
The swap was proposed and mediated by Germany and Egypt as a “confidence-building measure.” The swap is supposed to be the first real step toward facilitating Shalit’s return. If this exchange is any indication, his release will require freeing hundreds of convicted terrorists. With proof that Shalit is alive and for the taking, Netanyahu will be politically and publicly damned if he does make such a concession, and damned if he doesn’t.
But what confidence was built here? Confidence in the fact that Hamas is willing to negotiate when its outrageous demands are granted? Since when do 19 freed prisoners equate to a Youtube clip? At the risk of sounding like my 10-year-old brother — it’s not fair. I can understand the overwhelming pressure the Israeli government must face every day to provide some proof that Shalit is still alive and that it hasn’t given up on getting him back. Some news outlets said the bargain has provided great relief to the Israeli people as a sign that Hamas may be more willing to negotiate now and return Shalit.
I didn’t get that impression. I think it’s more indicative of a willingness to manipulate and milk Israel for all its worth for as long as Israel plays along. This move showed no indication Hamas will return Shalit anytime soon. What will it be next time? A lock of Shalit’s hair for 10 prisoners? A letter for 50?
Furthermore, Hamas didn’t tell us anything new with this video. Though some feared the worst and wanted visual confirmation that Shalit was still alive and in good health, many had good reason to already believe this to be true. Shalit’s parents have received letters and audio each year since his capture; this was merely the first time a video was sent. Hamas knows Shalit’s safety is their greatest bargaining chip for getting what they want, given the huge, emotional chokehold Shalit has over Israel. In December, when fighting escalated between Israel and Gaza, Hamas threatened that Israel best stop bombing Gaza, lest it accidentally bomb the location Shalit was held captive. The moment he’s dead, he serves no purpose to Hamas anymore. Though they could pretend he’s alive and avoid showing proof, they would run a huge risk of their secret being discovered.
In fact, I fear this video might do more harm than good. I fear it might make the Israeli government more complacent in their haste to get him back. In the video, Shalit’s waistline looks a little too slim for comfort, but he shows no signs of bruises, scars or disfiguring features. At one point he rises from his chair, walks up to the camera and then walks back and sits down — a move his captors most likely directed to prove he could still walk. By the video’s depiction, his mental and physical health are fine. In fact, he says (or is instructed to say), “”I feel well in health terms and I’m being treated very well.”
To see Shalit alive and well gave relief to Israelis. But is relief the feeling people should have in respect to a hostage situation? I am not relieved that, after three years, Israel has only been able to negotiate itself a video. And I’m still not convinced this video symbolizes anything on Hamas’s part to move his return along. If anything, now that people see Shalit appears to be in good mental and physical condition, it buys Hamas even more time to draw this out. Hamas is wise not to show signs of torture, because Israel could resort to greater desperate measures under pressure from its citizens. Negotiations won’t be as desperately time-sensitive, because Israel knows Shalit is, and has been, safe for three years. People should not forget that, regardless of his condition, a young soldier has been kept prisoner since he was 19.
I hope in the future Israel pushes for stronger negotiations. Instead of releasing prisoners for a video of an innocent man, it is my hope that they settle for nothing short of the man himself.