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Shalit’s captivity is open wound for Israel
July 1st, 2011
Jerusalem (JTA) — Michal Naamani traveled to Jerusalem from her home near Kfar Saba to hand to motorists bumper stickers saying “Gilad is alive.”
Naamani, a high school teacher, felt that she wanted to do something to help captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
“I’m a mother. I have a younger brother doing reserve duty,” Naamani told JTA on June 24, the day before the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture in a raid on the Gaza-Israel border that left two other soldiers dead. “I’m here because if it was my son, I would want someone to support me as well.”
Shalit’s family members have fought to keep Gilad in the public eye. This year Gilad’s older brother, Yoel, disrupted Israel’s state ceremony on Israeli Independence Day.
But it has been five years and there is no a clear sign that a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas is in the offing or even that Shalit is still alive.
And because Israeli children eventually are subject to mandatory military service, “Gilad Shalit is every Israeli parent’s worst nightmare,” Israeli journalist Stuart Schoffman told JTA.
Some Israelis say Shalit also has become a symbol of Israelis’ frustration with Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip and is believed to have authority over Shalit’s captors.
A few Israeli military officials have expressed concern that Shalit’s capture might sap motivation among young Israelis to sign up for combat units in the Israel Defense Forces.
But Meir Elran, an expert on the Israeli army at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said motivation remains high.
Shalit was 19 when he was captured. Assuming he is alive, he is now 24. Despite repeated requests, the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him.
He is believed to be held somewhere in Gaza, probably in an underground bunker. His face has become ubiquitous in Israel, seen on posters, balloons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.
The Israeli public has not received any sign Shalit is alive since September 2009, when a video was released showing him looking wan but unharmed. Hamas has rejected an appeal by the Red Cross for a new video.
For several years, Israel has been negotiating with Hamas indirectly over Shalit. Hamas’ demands have not changed: the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, among them dozens of men convicted of murdering Israelis.
Netanyahu announced recently that because Hamas would not allow Shalit a Red Cross visit, Israel would be stiffening conditions for Palestinians in Israeli jails convicted of terrorism.
A survey released at the end of June found that 63 percent of Israelis support a deal to free Shalit.
Some Israeli analysts say that Hamas needs the PR boost that a large-scale prisoner release would provide, especially if Palestinian elections take place in the next year.
Support for Hamas in Gaza has dropped. Recent polls show Hamas trailing far behind Fatah.
Yet unless Hamas significantly softens its demands, the chances of a deal appear slim. Schoffman said this has fueled displeasure with Netanyahu.
“It has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the current government, regardless of one’s political affiliation,” he said. “Most Israelis say, ‘Make this happen already, this is outrageous.’”