Do you know who Gilad Shalit is? Of course you do, unless
you�ve spent the last three years submerged in a submarine or shivering in a
North Pole igloo.
This ordinary young Israeli corporal who had the misfortune
of being abducted by Palestinian fighters on June 25, 2006, has been turned
into an iconic figure worth untold thousands of column inches and weeks of
He has had Egyptian diplomats frantically working his case.
The Russian president has asked for Shalit�s �immediate release.� Jimmy Carter
has been mediating away and even the Papal Nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Antonio
Franco, has attempted to get the young fellow returned to the arms of his
Now, hands up anyone who knows the names of even one of the
8,000 Palestinians languishing in Israel�s prisons. How about the name of one
of the 1,200 Gaza residents killed during Israel�s Operation Cast Lead? No?
You have to hand it to the Israelis. They have managed to
turn victimhood into an art form. With soldiers dying in Afghanistan every
week, why should the world at large worry about a solitary Israeli soldier who
is apparently in good health and is allowed to send the occasional video, audio
tape and letter to reassure his friends and family?
Without doubt, Cpl. Shalit�s parents are desperate to have
him home and it�s only natural that they are angry at their government for refusing
the prisoner swap that Hamas demands. They have never ceased in their efforts
to mobilise Israeli public support for their cause and, according to one poll,
some 69 percent of Israelis are backing them.
That statistic is hardly surprising when you consider how
this formerly unremarkable soldier, who looks more Clark Kent than Superman,
has been elevated to the status of superhero -- thanks to Israel�s
super-efficient propaganda machine.
You�ll have to excuse the fact that I�m not exactly oozing
sympathy for Shalit. He is a grown-up soldier for heaven�s sake! He is someone
who donned a military uniform and carried a gun primarily for the purpose of
shooting at Palestinians. As far as I am concerned, he is lucky to be alive.
Certainly, the Israelis had no such qualms when they sent a Mossad
assassination squad to hunt down a Hamas commander in Dubai. He was returned to
his family in a coffin.
Israel regularly kidnaps children as young as 11 years old
and deprives them of access to their parents for the �crime� of stone-throwing.
Most of those children are locked up, terrified and traumatised. Yet, the
international community that sheds crocodile tears over Shalit cares not a jot
about the fate of Palestinian children.
With Israeli public sentiment running so high on the Shalit
issue, why isn�t Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rounding up a couple
hundred Palestinians shortly due to be released and packing them into buses for
After all, Israeli governments have swapped Palestinian
prisoners for the bodies of their fallen before now. In 2008, Israel handed
over five Lebanese prisoners and 200 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian
fighters for the remains of two of its solders.
So there�s a precedent. The question is why is Netanyahu
stubbornly refusing to compromise when it comes to Shalit? Surely, the positive
publicity that such a move would generate for Netanyahu would be priceless. A
garlanded Shalit waving to legions of happy admirers from an open-topped bus
cruising along Tel Aviv�s Allenby Street could be Likud�s greatest gift.
Ah, but this is Israel we�re talking about; a country that
exists on publicity, public relations and propaganda. It�s clear that poor
Shalit is worth more to Netanyahu in the custody of whoever is holding him than
munching watermelon on his parents� porch.
As long as he is in Gaza, Netanyahu can use him as an excuse
for keeping the blockade on Gaza and accentuating the intransigence of Hamas.
Let�s be honest! Israel�s prime minister is walking a fine line as it is, after
his commandos shot and killed nine peace activists in international waters
under the pretext he had to ensure illicit goods didn�t fall into the hands of
I suspect that the last thing Israel�s wily prime minister
wants is to find a smiling Shalit strolling up to the Erez Crossing to announce,
�I�m back!� That wouldn�t suit Netanyahu�s carefully contrived anti-Hamas
narrative. How could he continue painting Hamas leader Esmail Haniya as
heartless and barbaric were Shalit to be unconditionally released unharmed?
And that, my friends, is exactly why the Hamas leadership
should seriously consider this gesture, which would give the organisation a
giant public relations boost in the international arena. They should kit him
out in a new T-shirt and jeans, hand him a bag of shawarma sandwiches and drive
him close to the border with an army of TV cameras in tow. A few parting hugs
might not be amiss, but if that�s a stretch too far, a simple �Shalom� would
Instead of attempting to swap Shalit for incarcerated
Palestinians, which, in any case, looks like a no-go, Haniya should swap him
for a win in the court of public opinion. Delivering up the world�s most famous
soldier without conditions would represent a PR coup for Hamas -- and yet
another nail in the coffin for Israel�s increasingly ineffectual
anti-Palestinian propaganda. It�s worth a try!
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.