In September 2005, I received a phone call from one of my wife’s cousins. Her brother Sasson Nuriel was missing and they thought he might have been kidnapped in Ramallah. Sasson worked with many Palestinians, buying and selling factory equipment. As a first generation Iraqi Jew born in Israel, he spoke fluent Arabic and had many Palestinian friends…
by Gershon Baskin
I was attending a conference abroad, so I asked my friend and colleague Hanna Siniora if he could go to Ramallah and ask around. Hanna did and found nothing. He met with senior officials in the Palestinian police who had no knowledge of an Israeli kidnapped in Ramallah. When I returned from abroad, I went to Ramallah, asked around and also came up without any information. Several days later Hamas issued a video of Sasson, his hands tied and his eyes covered, obviously after being badly tortured, reciting a text that was given to him calling for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. Several days after that, Sasson’s body was found. I was too late; I could not help to save Sasson.
When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, Israel, realizing that a soldier was missing, quickly closed the escape routes out of Gaza. Israel launched a broad bombing campaign that included attacks against infrastructure in Gaza. I received two calls from people in Gaza who were concerned that the civilian population there would pay a very high price for the kidnapping and wanted it to end as soon as possible. One of them lived next door to a newly-appointed Hamas minister and the other was himself a member of Hamas and a professor of economics at the Gaza Islamic University.
After several days, the economics professor asked me if it would be possible to open a line of communication in order to begin a process of negotiating Shalit’s release. Without hesitation, I said I would do whatever was possible. I was put in contact with the office of Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and since then I have tried, on the sidelines and behind the scenes, to assist in reaching a deal that would bring Gilad home to Israel and his family.
Aside from the promise that I made to myself when Sasson was murdered, that if I could ever help to prevent someone else from facing Sasson’s fate I would, I have always believed in the covenant that exists between the people of Israel and the state of Israel: that no soldier would be left behind. This basic understanding enables us to maintain a people’s army for our defense. In August, my middle son will begin his military service. I have enough problems on the political level with military service today in the occupied territories that if this covenant did not exist, as a parent I would have even more reservations.
The past five years of Gilad’s captivity suggest that the understanding between the people and the state might no longer exist. Yes, it is true that the state should not pay „any price“ for the release of a soldier from captivity. But this is not a situation of any price; the price tag is known. In the opinion of former heads of the Shin Bet (Internal Security Service) and other senior military experts, the price can be paid and we can deal with the consequences of the release of so many convicted terrorists, include Sasson’s murderer.
I believe that the deal could have been completed years ago, and I have firsthand knowledge about the negotiations. I have been continually amazed that for the most part Israel’s negotiating strategy has been passive: we have merely responded to Hamas demands. I proposed years ago to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to put an offer on the table „that they can’t refuse“.
I suggested offering 2,000 prisoners: about 750 administrative detainees that we have not brought to trial, about 700 prisoners from Gaza–regardless of what they had done, they would go back to Gaza–and another 550 women, minors, sick prisoners, and those who have already served more than 20 years. I suggested that the list of 2,000 names of Palestinian prisoners be published in the Palestinian media so the families of those prisoners would apply pressure on the Hamas leadership to accept the deal. Many other proposals were put forth by me and others and here we are five years since the kidnapping and there is still no sign of any real progress.
As a citizen of Israel, as a parent, as a person who served in the IDF and educated officers in the College for the Training of Officers, I am angry, dismayed and deeply concerned that our leaders have failed for so long to bring home a soldier who is in captivity, so close to home. The public has been far too tolerant of this failure and far too gullible in believing that our leaders are in fact doing everything possible to bring him home. I don’t believe them.-Published 27/6/2011 © bitterlemons.org
Gershon Baskin is the co-CEO and founder of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.