The price of coming home again
A few months after I moved to Germany in 2006, palestinian militants tunneled into Israel, infiltrated a military base and seized a 19 year-old israeli soldier by the name of Gilad Shalit. After an unsuccessful attempt by Israel to release Gilad by military means, he remained in isolated captivity for five years and four months, held by Hamas, until an agreement, mediated by Egypt, was reached in October 2011 which would swap Gilad for over 1000 palestinian prisoners, many high-profile terrorists and convicted murderers. On October 18th 2011, the swap took place, and Gilad Shalit, now 25 years old, returned home.
The plight to bring Gilad home greeted me everywhere on my many trips to Israel during the past five years. His face was everywhere – on street signs, posters, stickers and billboards. His parents and activists, many who have never met Gilad, erected a protest camp in front of the Prime Minister’s quarters in Jerusalem. The family’s march across the country was accompanied by thousands. The collective pain by Gilad’s capture was immense and yet, extremely difficult to explain to those who are not familiar with what growing up as an Israeli is ultimately like.
Understanding why Israelis chose to swap a dangerous bunch of convicted killers is a difficult one. So much, to the extent where the foreign media is having a hard time at trying to explain it to their readers. As an Israeli, understanding the necessity of this deal makes almost intuitive sense, even with cognitive dissonance looming in the background.
I explained to someone yesterday over Twitter that Gilad’s return was celebrated in Israel not because he was a “national hero”, but because he was somebody’s son. Israel has national conscription, which means that service in the army is mandatory. Every Israeli goes into the army at the age of 18 and many young soldiers find themselves in situations they didn’t expect and/or didn’t want to be in. I served through the Al-Aqsa Intifada and have lost friends and colleagues to palestinian terrorists. One was shot at point-blank by a palestinian gunman. Another rode over an explosive. One of my brothers served off the coast of Beirut during the 2006 Lebanon war when the INS Hanit was fired upon. He lost some friends that day and it very easily could have been him, on the INS Lahav. A few years later, soldiers from the INS Lahav were wounded when attacked by activists during the Gaza flotilla raid.
It’s an uncomfortable reality, but it’s part of growing up in Israel. Many of us go through our service without seeing combat. Some of us go through it without being confronted with death. Some of us get wounded. Some of us get captured. Some never come home again. Israel’s policy of not leaving it’s soldiers behind comes from the understanding that a soldier is, first and foremost, a young Israeli with friends, family, hopes and dreams for the future. When Israeli soldiers lose their lives in battle or attacks, they are remembered not as military personell or numbers on a sheet of paper, but as sons and daughters.
This is a point which I find terribly difficult to bring across to my non-Israeli friends. In most western countries, military service is not mandatory and those which do have conscription service are not normally under a state of peril. The mentality of “doing your part to protect your neighbor” doesn’t exist (it’s more “doing your part to fight someone else’s war”). On first glance, the release of over 1000 palestinian inmates to secure the return of Gilad Shalit seems irrationally disproportional, but Israelis believed they were fulfilling a moral obligation to bring back one of their own and give him a chance at a future.
This is a strength of Israeli society, and also it’s weakness. There’s no guarantee that the released palestinian militants will not return to terrorism, Hamas played Gilad Shalit as a carefully placed card and took advantage of Israel’s desire to have him returned home at almost any cost. Hamas is widely celebrating the release of the militants, claiming to have demonstrated their superior ability to manipulate Israel. In the meantime, Israelis seem to have developed more of a “fuck you, we’re just happy to see the kid home” attitude, despite the understanding that the entire ordeal may not work out in their favor in the long run.
Personally, I’m relieved to see Gilad home and am excited for his friends and family. I’m happy that Israel is upholding it’s obligation to it’s citizens and am humbled by the great lengths to which the country has agreed to go to in order to bring back one if it’s own. On the other side, I am horrified – not necessarily of the possible direct involvement of the released palestinian militants in future acts of terrorism (although that’s certainly a concern) but the boost that the prisoner release has given Hamas and what this may do to the balance of power in the region in the long-term.
At the end of the day, Gilad is a shy, quiet young man who has probably been through a lot more than any of us should ever have to. And everyone’s just really damn happy to see him home.