Gilad Shalit and the ‘war of tears’

It’s great that the Israeli soldier is free after five years. Now maybe Israel can escape the politics of emotionalism.

Nathalie Rothschild

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You’d have to be very callous not to be touched by Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel after 1,940 days in captivity in Gaza. For his family, and for Israel as a whole, the five-year wait has not passed quietly. An intense media campaign, international demonstrations, celebrity solidarity actions, a tent raised outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem – it all contributed to Gilad Shalit becoming a household name and a powerful political symbol.

Now that Shalit is safe at home, it seems his case continues to serve as a kind of vessel into which observers, politicians and activists pour their fears and hopes for the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is understandable that many people are getting carried away by the homecoming of Shalit and the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released as part of the Egypt-brokered prisoner-exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. Yet Shalit’s ordeal should also serve as a reminder that when one captive soldier captures the imagination of all the parties to a conflict, the politics of emotionalism can easily replace a strategic vision for the resolution of that conflict.

Shalit was just 19 when he was captured by Hamas fighters in an ambush in June 2006. Days later, Israel invaded Gaza and ever since Shalit has been used as a bargaining chip in negotiations over ceasefires, border closures and embargos. Just like the Israeli airforce navigator Ron Arad became the human face of Israel’s conflict with Lebanon after he went missing in action in 1986, Shalit’s fate has become intertwined with Israel’s drawn-out conflict with Hamas-ruled Gaza. Indeed, last year an Israeli TV ad showed an image of Shalit’s face morphing into that of Arad’s, and over the past five years air raids on Gaza were usually followed by speculation about Shalit’s fate.

The negotiations were always about more than Shalit himself. For Israel’s leaders, they became a way of displaying their political steadfastness. But when they frequently failed to negotiate Shalit’s release, Israeli politicians tended to play on the deep emotions evoked by his ordeal instead.

For instance, two years into Shalit’s imprisonment, when prospects for his release looked dire, then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert took the unusual step of publishing a list of names of the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners that Hamas demanded in exchange for Shalit. The big moral dilemma within Israel then, as now, was how to weigh up respect for the bereaved families of victims of Palestinian violence with respect for the feelings of bereaved parents of dead and kidnapped soldiers.

But as cold as it might sound, a government dealing with a deeply damaging conflict must be able to stand above such understandable emotions. Olmert’s government did not do this, however; instead it sought sympathy for its failure to free Shalit by highlighting a moral dilemma.

Although moving, the Israeli public’s rallying behind the Shalit family also encouraged the politics of emotionalism. Countless Facebook groups were created; a logo with Shalit’s image and the words ‘Gilad is still alive’ was created and printed on t-shirts, billboards and bumber stickers. Many Israelis and tourists made pilgrimage-like journeys to the Shalit family tent in Jerusalem where visitors wrote messages on post-it notes and hung yellow ribbons. This led to several emotional stand-offs in recent years, as the families of terror victims argued that it was unfair for them to pay the price for Shalit’s freedom, by having to watch the killers of their loved ones being released. In 2009, Israeli daily Haaretz noted that families of terror victims were waging ‘a war of tears’ by the Shalit tent, in an attempt to discourage the government from striking a prisoner exchange deal that involved the release of terrorists.

It is understandable, even admirable, that Shalit’s family and friends engaged in such an elaborate campaign to keep his image burned into the consciences of Israeli politicians and the public. But in the process, Shalit has been turned into a symbol in a fashion that might prove to be to Israel’s detriment and which may have prolonged his imprisonment. The more he became a thorn in the side for politicians, who were worried about disappointing the vast majority of Israelis by failing to bring Shalit home, the more his captors realised that they had a certain power over Israel’s leaders. By turning Shalit into a symbol of Israeli emotionalism, Israel’s leaders inadvertently strengthened the hand of those keen to hit the Jewish state where it hurts.

At the same time, Israeli leaders used Shalit as a justification for violent attacks on Gaza. Conveniently, this meant they often did not need to justify their military incursions in political or existential terms, but rather as an extension of their emotionalism – it was about getting Shalit back.

The sustained interest in Shalit also helped cast the conflict in a very simplistic light, as a battle between humanitarians and barbarians. For instance, some say Israelis’ willingness to swap young soldiers – dead or alive – for Palestinians involved in killing Israelis is proof of their strong sense of solidarity and respect for the sanctity of life. This is contrasted with Hamas’ use of suicide bombers and ‘human shields’. This kind of rhetoric is used by current Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who is clearly expecting a lot of political mileage for ‘bringing Gilad home’, as he put it on Tuesday (despite his many run-ins with the Shalits over the years).

Back in 2009, a woman who visited the Shalit tent told Haaretz that ‘a government shouldn’t operate based on the weeping of mothers’. During the Second Lebanon War, her son had told her that he would not want anyone released in exchange for him if he was kidnapped. ‘I agree with him 100 per cent’, she said. ‘Do what is good for the State of Israel – don’t operate based on tears.’ Her comments may seem callous, but that is only because they are anathema to modern Israeli society. In the past, her blend of compassion for the bereaved and her insistence that the feelings of mourners should not be the driving force of political decision-making would have been commonplace.

Instead, Shalit was too eagerly deployed as a political pawn. And even now, after his release, observers continue to express all sorts of hopes and fears through him. For instance, some say the prisoner exchange deal shows that Hamas and Israel can negotiate and so there is hope for a future peace agreement. Others believe the uneven deal will usher in a new era of terror attacks and kidnappings. And so on.

Shalit’s return home was an emotional and inspiring moment. He deserves to be free and his freedom was achieved with the help of a great number of committed family members, friends and strangers. Now, he should be left alone, and all leaders in the Middle East should desert the politics of emotionalism.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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