Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gilad Shalit -- Still Waiting for a Red Cross Visit , Three Years In Captivity

Three long years


Something may be afoot in efforts to bring Cpl. Gilad Schalit home. Thursday marks three years since Palestinian infiltrators tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip, killed Lt. Hanan Barak and St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutsker and dragged our young soldier into captivity.

Hamas had recently defeated Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections and the international community was trying to figure out how to reconcile the will of the Palestinian majority with its need for the Islamist movement to recognize Israel, end violence and abide by the PLO's signed agreements.

Fatah and Hamas did eventually form a unity government, though it ended brutally in June 2007 with the ouster from Gaza of forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas.

WHILE the strategic challenge Israel faces is not Hamas's custody of Schalit but its suzerainty over Gaza, it's been a long three years.

Hamas has held Schalit incommunicado. Violating international law and human decency, and although Hamas prisoners in Israel are permitted visitors, Gaza's rulers have refused to allow even the Red Cross to see their Israeli hostage.

Meanwhile, Fatah and Hamas unity talks are back on, and showing signs of "progress." And because the Islamists have held firm in their intransigence, the international community is fudging its original requirements of Hamas.

Hamas's rocket attacks on Israel together with its refusal to renew a de-facto cease-fire led the IDF to launch Operation Cast Lead last year. Since then, the Kassam firings have been sporadic, though a major attack was thwarted earlier this month and arms smuggling continues despite improved Egyptian vigilance along the Philadelphi Corridor.

Hamas's relentless bellicosity and Schalit's unlawful imprisonment notwithstanding, the Palestinians are aggrieved over Israel's restrictions on the types of goods it permits into the Strip (food, medicine, fuel and commodities go in; dual-use materials such as concrete and iron for making bunkers and rockets are kept out). Yesterday, in solidarity with Schalit, hundreds of Israelis blocked the shipment of goods into Gaza.

Europe and the US side with the Palestinians in demanding that the crossing points be unconditionally opened, with international monitors supposedly ensuring that Hamas plays by the rules. And if it doesn't? No doubt the rules will be "adjusted."

NEGOTIATIONS under Egyptian auspices for Schalit's release are accelerating. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Cairo this week, and a top Egyptian intelligence operative was said to have been in Tel Aviv yesterday on Schalit-related business.

Schalit's parents have not known a day of tranquility in three years and Israel must strive to bring him safely home - but not at any cost: Hamas has been insisting on the release of 1,000 prisoners in exchange for their Israeli hostage.

This newspaper raises no objection to freeing a modest number of prisoners, provided their release won't jeopardize more Israeli lives - though we regret the release yesterday of West Bank Hamas politician Aziz Dweik, while Schalit remains a prisoner.

However, we remain adamantly opposed to trading Schalit for mass-murderers such as Abdullah Barghouti, who has the blood of 66 Israelis on his hands (Sbarro, etc.); Ibrahim Hamed, who murdered 36 (Moment café, etc); Abbas Sayad (Netanya massacre, Pessah 2006).

It is not surprising that just as talk of an imminent deal on Schalit is circulating, so too is news of a blue-ribbon Defense Ministry panel shortly submitting its proposed guidelines governing future prisoner exchanges. These would constrain decision-makers in making obscenely lopsided exchanges: There would reportedly be no more releases of vast numbers of enemy prisoners for one or two Israeli soldiers, and only terrorist corpses - not live prisoners - could be traded for fallen Israelis.

These guidelines are eminently reasonable, and should - but won't - be applied to the Schalit case.

Once the wrenching Schalit affair is ended, we urge an efficient commission of inquiry into why there was no attempt to rescue the soldier over three years. Israelis have the right to know why the risks to the civilian population in releasing busloads of terrorists were deemed to trump those of a rescue mission.

If the government miscalculates the Schalit endgame, it could inadvertently fortify Hamas, endanger Israeli civilians and set the stage for the next hostage ordeal.

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