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What Israel affirmed by accepting Hamas’ offer

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

“Israel Considering Proposed Deal to Free Soldier Held by Hamas.”

When these words flashed across my blackberry in a New York Times breaking news brief, my heart skipped a beat.

A quick trip to the paper’s website confirmed my suspicion: The “Soldier Held by Hamas” was none other than Gilad Shalit. The man who has been held as a prisoner of war by Hamas since 2006—the man who’s name I have worn on a bracelet since I attended a rally for him in the 10th grade.

My immediate reaction can most accurately be described as a hot mix of shock, excitement, disbelief and relief.

I was struck with the urge to sing and yell and scream and cry—though I did none of these things.

Instead, I turned back to my computer and—in an attempt to gain more insight into what was happening—consulted all relevant media sources.

The explosion of Facebook and Twitter updates I found, immediately following the breaking news update, confirmed its message.

My friends shouted with exclamation points, capital letters and grand statements:

This is the day that we had been waiting for.

Finally, Gilad will be returned to his family, his home and his homeland.

It is nothing short of a miracle.

After five years of countless protests, prayers, Facebook events and failed negotiations, Gilad Shalit is coming back to Israel.

Naturally, there will be costs—specifically, the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being held captive by Israel—but the deal has been signed and the rest is up to history.

It is hard to disagree with the chorus of voices critiquing Israel’s deal for being uneven, fueled by emotion as opposed to strategy and—not only a negotiation with, but also—a surrender to terrorists. I can’t help but feel, however, as though this decision comes as neither a surprise nor a disappointment.

This decision was born, not out of strategy, but out of ideology and an intense Israeli devotion to national solidarity at any cost. Israel stands behind its soldiers because almost all Israelis are soldiers.

This type of decision is hard to understand out of context and without a real understanding of the relationship between Israeli culture and Gilad Shalit—and, more broadly, the conflict as a whole.

It is an understatement to say that Israel’s relationship with the conflict is complicated. Much of this complexity can be attributed to Israel’s size. Both geographically and in terms of population, the State of Israel is comparable to the size of New Jersey.

This smallness means that any violence within the state’s borders poses a potential physical threat to the entirety of the country. Since aggression is almost a constant presence within the state, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) need to employ more soldiers than could be produced voluntarily and is forced to rely on a policy of compulsory military service for all citizens.

Since all Israeli citizens are drafted into the IDF—and 80 percent of drafted citizens fulfill their service—the experience of serving in the military is inseparable from the experience of being Israeli; and, while not all positions within the IDF are focused on conflict, even if they did not see battle, every Israeli citizen has had a sister, uncle, cousin, childhood friend or elementary school teacher who served in combat.

Because the Israeli experience is so defined by this closeness to battle, the experience of losing a loved one in combat is a constant fear that plagues the lives of all Israeli families.

In such a small community, and one so defined by military action, prisoners of war are not able to be disassociated and simplified into numbers on a television screen—able to be processed and discussed without emotion—but are forced to remain individual, very real people (with all of the difficult emotion that accompanies that).

In this way, Gilad Shalit is not just a prisoner of war, he is a lost member of the Israeli community.

Gilad’s is a ubiquitous presence all across Israel; every citizen knows his name and face. He is the son of every mother who has had a child and his return to Israel means the reunion of the Israeli family.

While I can’t say that I am without anxiety about the trade—it is almost too scary to think about all of the looming questions, which haven’t been addressed (In what condition will he be returned? What have these years done to him?)—I know that if nothing else, I can take comfort in the message this trade sends.

No matter how this exchange turns out, it serves as a reminder that it will always be in Israel’s ideology to preserve and perpetuate Israeli solidarity at any and all costs.

Now, I can only join in celebration with the rest of the world’s Jewish community and hope that our boy gets home safely.