Israel's Kidnapped Soldiers Secret Negotiations for a Prisoner Exchange

Hamas and Hezbollah have been holding three Israeli soldiers hostage for months. In response to pressure from the soldiers' families and an Egyptian mediator, a first prisoner exchange finally seems to be on the horizon.

By in Jerusalem

Posters of the three captured Israeli soldirers Ehud Goldwasser (left), Gilad Shalit (center) and Eldad Regev in Jerusalem: Is the release of terrorists a suitable price for their freedom?

Posters of the three captured Israeli soldirers Ehud Goldwasser (left), Gilad Shalit (center) and Eldad Regev in Jerusalem: Is the release of terrorists a suitable price for their freedom?

Noam Shalit is running late. One of his son's former teachers has just called to say that she has something for him. After driving out to the old elementary school, he returns carrying a thin blue notebook. It's Friday afternoon in Mizpe Hila, a small village in the mountains of northern Israel, just a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. The Sabbath begins in a few hours.

Yet another week has passed without a sign of life from Gilad Shalit. For his parents, this marks the 43rd week of waiting since their son was kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The kidnappers even refused to accept a new pair of glasses they attempted to send to their son through the Red Cross. Noam Shalit, a short, gray-haired, balding man with tired eyes, sits dejectedly on his sofa.

He carefully opens the old notebook. It contains a fable Gilad wrote in the fifth grade about a little fish and a little shark who meet for the first time and play.

When the shark goes home and tells his mother that he played with the fish, the mother says: "You don't play with fish. You eat fish." The mother of the little fish says to her son: "You don't play with sharks. Sharks killed your father."

Shalit pauses for a moment. Sharks and fish cannot be friends. He finds it uncanny that his son, of all people, wrote this fable about the Middle East conflict. His son, 20-years-old, who was performing his compulsory military service on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip and became a tragic victim of the conflict himself. "It is astonishing how relevant this story is to Gilad's case," says the father.

Exerting pressure

For the past nine months and three weeks, Shalit has tried to exert pressure on the kidnappers and the Israeli government, hoping that he will convince them to negotiate. He knows that an Egyptian mediator is in contact with both sides, but he has the impression that both Israelis and Palestinians are barricading themselves behind the concepts of the enemy they have cultivated for decades. We don't talk to occupiers, say the Palestinians. No negotiations with terrorists, say the Israelis.

Shalit has also become a mediator of sorts between these hostile worlds. He isn't angry and he doesn't withdraw the way his wife does. Instead, he forces his way into the public eye and fights to keep his son from being forgotten -- and he campaigns for a better understanding of the Palestinians and their woes. Last November, when Israeli army artillery fire inadvertently wiped out almost an entire family in the Gaza Strip, Shalit visited the survivors of the tragedy in the hospital. "I wanted to demonstrate that the people in Israel are not monsters," he says.

Less than three weeks after the kidnapping, Gilad Shalit's parents were sitting in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. They urged Olmert to negotiate with the kidnappers in the Gaza Strip, but he refused, arguing that if Israel gave in to their demands and released Palestinian terrorists, it would only lead to more kidnappings. Even while Olmert was explaining his tough stance, a military advisor interrupted the meeting to report that members of the Lebanese Hezbollah group had just abducted two Israeli soldiers. "This only proves," Noam Shalit told the prime minister, "that kidnappings also occur without your having made any concessions."

The two abducted soldiers were Ehud Goldwasser, 31, nicknamed Udi, and Eldad Regev, 26. Hezbollah captured them at about 9 a.m. on July 12, 2006, while they were patrolling the Lebanese border. The two men were seriously injured in the attack, and eight others were killed.

Within a few hours, the prime minister had decided to go to war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. "Only the return of the soldiers will stop the operation," Olmert promised. He agreed to a cease-fire one month later. But since then, there has been no trace of Goldwasser and Regev.

The government must make concessions

Prime Minister Olmert has little support from the Israeli people today, mainly because he failed to make good on his wartime promise. But he will need that support if he hopes to resolve the hostage crisis. If Israel expects to get its soldiers back, the government will have to make concessions to the kidnappers. This requires courage, partly in dealing with the Israeli public.

The hostage-takers demand? They want their compatriots to be released from Israeli jails. But the problem is that many of these prisoners have been convicted of gruesome acts of violence against Israeli civilians. One of them is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the second Intifada. Another is Ahmed Saadat, the man behind the murder of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

The kidnappings raise a familiar question: Is the state giving in to blackmail by negotiating with hostage-takers? Or isn't it the government's duty to do everything within its power to bring back any of its citizens alive?


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