Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is home today, in his mother’s and father’s arms, his physical wounds receiving treatment, his other wounds no doubt just beginning to emerge. But he’s home. And that is a very, very good thing, and it’s good aside from and beyond anything else. Nothing I write here or anywhere else changes that. I am trying to hold that in my mind even as I consider all of the horror that surrounds that one, shining, good thing.
Last week, I wrote about some of what’s been wrong in Israel’s response to Shalit’s capture from day one — from day-minus-one, actually, given the Israeli kidnapping of two Gazan men from their homes, one day before Shalit was captured (in uniform and on duty) by Palestinian militants.
Today I’m going to write about what is so frightening and heartbreaking about the implications of the whole, broader story in which Shalit plays a part.
Gilad Shalit was captured in June 2006, about ten months after Israel’s 2005 retreat from the Gaza Strip. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was hotly contested, but was presented to the Israeli public as a way to disengage the two warring peoples, leave the Gazans to their own fate, and — in the part that most Westerners failed to notice or chose to ignore — make it easier for Israel to hold on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The problem (well – among the problems) is that in spite of repeated, and desperate, requests from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel walked away without so much as a by-your-leave.
There were no negotiations, certainly no security arrangements, and as a result, the Palestinian moderates (Abbas and his Fatah party) with whom Israel had purportedly been negotiating for 10 years had nothing to show for their efforts.
As a result, Hamas was able to claim the credit for its decade of terror, boosting the movement tremendously in Palestinian eyes and playing a crucial role in its January 2006 electoral victory (a narrow victory, due more to Fatah’s splintering and efforts to game the system than to any great support for Hamas — witness the fact that the next day, three-quarters of Palestinians polled told Al-Jazeera they hoped Hamas would negotiate peace). Moreover, the lack of security arrangements might very well have played a role in the Shalit capture and Israel’s inability to get him back. We can’t know for sure, but it’s certainly a reasonable question to ask.
Then on June 25, 2006, Shalit was captured. Israel launched an all-out assault on the Gaza Strip, ultimately wreaking tremendous damage on the Strip’s infrastructure and killing more than 250 Palestinians; sixty-four Palestinian legislators and government officials were kidnapped in the operation’s early days. Here’s a snippet from a CNN report on July 1:
Shalit’s abduction on Sunday by Palestinian militants triggered an ongoing military offensive that Israel says is aimed at freeing the soldier.
The groups said they wanted 1,000 Arab prisoners released from Israeli jails, according to a statement faxed to media outlets early Saturday. The statement did not make it clear whether the groups were asking for the prisoners’ releases in return for Shalit’s release.
The prisoners include women and children.
Israel has flatly rejected any prisoner swap.
Israel continued to “flatly reject any prisoner swap” for years, insisting that it would wrest Shalit from Hamas’s hands/punish Hamas for taking him in the first place, right through the 2008/09 Gaza War, in which some 1,387 Palestinians were killed, including 773 who weren’t involved in combat and 119 who were under the age of 11. During these same years of non-negotiation, 13 Israelis (soldiers and civilians) were killed in the course of hostilities.
Not quite a year after it launched the Gaza War, Israel said that it would be releasing 980 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. That deal fell apart, and in the ensuing nearly three years, Israel has continued both to try to do the thing it had “flatly refused” to do, while also still pounding away at Gaza intermittently. Gazan militants have responded off and on with rocket fire, but as in the past, the vast majority of casualties have been on the Palestinian side.
Jump to today. Five + years later, a total of something like 2,000 Palestinians and several Israelis dead — and Hamas has successfully worn Israel down, winning the release of more than 1000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Or at least that’s what it looks like to Palestinians, and unsurprisingly, Hamas’s popularity has soared as a result.
My read is that Hamas in fact wore Israel down, but also caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when he was both desperately in need of an image boost (being universally reviled across Israel at this point), and really interested in sticking it to Abbas.
After all, Abbas just went to the UN to ask for state recognition for Palestine, and furthermore, the prisoners ideologically closest to Fatah (and furthest from Hamas) had just launched a hunger strike that was gaining real ground. It’s my read that Netanyahu still thinks (despite decades of evidence to the contrary) that Israel can just wait the Palestinians out, and he need never negotiate peace with anyone — particularly if he manages to entirely discredit and fatally weaken the one set of people most interested in such negotiations. And with this previously unthinkable prisoner swap, it is my opinion that Netanyahu has done just that.
So bottom line, from August 2005 through October 2011, from Sharon to Netanyahu, Israel’s greatest achievement in its relationship with the Palestinian people has been to throw Abbas and Fatah off a cliff. Which I gather was, at least in part, the point.
But what Israel — Netanyahu, his government, their supporters, the various pundits, and plain-old-folks who are happy to see Fatah go over the edge — has failed to understand is that there is a cord tied tightly around Fatah’s waist, and the other end is tied to us. By rendering Fatah/Abbas impotent, Israel has finally destroyed the possibility of a two-state peace, and thus doomed the Zionist experiment.
And I mean that. I believe that October 18, 2011 is the day on which Gilad Shalit — a pawn in the hands of more people than I can rightly count at this point — came home, and the day on which the possibility of a two-state solution finally died. I am now more convinced than ever that when history looks back on the modern nation-state of Israel, the Jewish State will feature as just one more disaster in the long list of Jewish disasters.
And we will have people like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu to thank for it.