Thursday, December 09, 2010

9-Dec-10: Can we risk freeing terrorists?

Frimet Roth's op-ed below appears in today's Jerusalem Post print and online editions.

The rise and fall of the Gaza blockade
This month, we learned that the closure will, for all intents and purposes, expire. And nobody, not even Schalit activists, has uttered a syllable of protest.

Last week, 21 aid groups launched a high-profile PR attack entitled “Dashed Hopes” directed at the blockade of Gaza. Aside from the disproportionate focus on a problem far overshadowed by starving populations elsewhere, the illustrated nine-page document suffered from a glaring omission: mention of Gilad Schalit.

The Gaza blockade was born exactly one year after Schalit’s capture by Hamas militants. It was imposed in response to Hamas’s political takeover of Gaza in June 2007.

However, it soon acquired an intrinsic connection to the campaign to free Schalit even though its full potential as leverage was never tapped.

Israelis march to highlight the need to free Gilad Schalit,
hostage of the Hamas regime in Gaza
In February 2009, it was still a nominal bargaining chip in Israel’s dealings with Hamas. Eli Yishai, then deputy prime minister, stated: “Israel is facing a serious humanitarian crisis and it is called Gilad Schalit and... until he is returned home, not only will we not allow more cargo to reach the residents of Gaza, we will even diminish it.”

In June 2009, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell advised a reversal of that policy, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused.

In July 2009, leaders of the campaign to free Schalit demonstrated at the Erez crossing, blocking the passage of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip.

When the government announced an easing of the blockade after the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair, Noam Schalit railed at Netanyahu: “And where is Gilad in this whole story?”

YET THIS month we learned that the blockade will, for all intents and purposes, expire. And nobody, not even Schalit activists, has uttered a syllable of protest.

This may be the natural outcome of years of brainwashing. We have been bombarded, by the media and by some politicians, with the message that Schalit must be freed “at any price.”

No number of convicted terrorists is too high and no risk of future deaths is too grave.

Yes, at any price wrote Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus in June 2008.

“Gilad Schalit must be released at any cost,” chimed in his colleague Gideon Levy in December 2009.

In December 2008, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “We may have to make tough decisions on that matter [the release of prisoners with blood on their hand] as well.” Journalist Eitan Haber has been a particularly staunch advocate of a mass prisoner release. In July 2010, he wrote: “The people who were once celebrated IDF generals... and later became prime ministers – freed many more terrorists in prisoner swaps than our ‘civilian’ prime ministers... Maybe they attributed supreme value to comradeship, and the notion that ‘Israel will do everything.’

In March 2009, a Dahaf public opinion poll showed that 69% favored releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners if it would bring Gilad home.

This month, in an interview with the Associated Press, Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot – a key policy maker in relation to the Palestinian areas – unveiled upcoming stages in the termination of the blockade.

Come spring, he promised, Israel will open the gates of Gaza to textiles, furniture and agriculture as well as allowing more exports.

The interview covered various details of the new policy and the rationale behind it. Yet Dangot failed to mention Gilad Schalit even once. He made no demand for his release or even for a first Red Cross visit.

The idea that Gazans are suffering a “humanitarian crisis” has long been popular in anti-Israel circles. But as Dangot knows full well, photographs of well-stocked Gazan shops, the grand openings of a new mall and of an Olympic-sized pool have put the lie to that. Recent critiques of the blockade do not speak of a humanitarian crisis.

Instead, they hunt for ills they can pin on the blockade. A November Huffington Post piece bemoaned “creeping restrictions on women’s freedom imposed by Hamas,” and the “the erosion of women’s freedoms compounded by their lack of participation in politics.”

But the bloggers concluded that this is Israel’s fault: “The blockade... is hampering women’s efforts to... advance gender equality.”

With similarly baffling illogic, in an October 2010 Haaretz column, Amira Hass dismissed as an “apocryphal legend” the fact that the blockade was imposed in reaction to Hamas’ rise to power and to its terror attacks. “Go back and open Gaza’s gates” she urges.

THE TRUTH is that the Left is banging on open doors. Policy-makers led by Dangot are doing a fine job of eliminating the blockade – and very transparently too. They are confident the media will gloss over the news, and that the public will remain apathetic.

Why have the attempts to free Schalit failed?

The major error has been to navigate only one course toward Gilad’s freedom: haggling over the list of terrorists to be released. The blockade, even when still officially in effect and defended by our government, was never strictly enforced. Supplies were routinely allowed into Gaza. Thousands of ill Gazans and their companions were admitted to Israel for medical treatment.

And if Schalit’s own government is happy to make unilateral concessions to his captors, why should foreigners, humanitarian organizations or the UN agonize over him?

But if Dangot expected kudos for shrinking the blockade, he must be disappointed. Following his interview, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had a litany of complaints about the matter. “Gaza remains a source of great concern for me... we think that what’s happened with Gaza is unsatisfactory,” she concluded on behalf of all EU foreign ministers.

Ashton made no reference to Gilad Schalit.

The very next day, Lynn Pascoe, chief UN political affairs official, joined the chorus. His monthly briefing to the Security Council stated that the priority of the UN is still “the rebuilding of a viable Gazan economy,” and that the process would begin with “the resumption of exports, free movement of people into and out of Gaza, the return of the Palestinian Authority to the crossing... [and] the timely entry of construction material.”

Pascoe did not utter the name Gilad Schalit.

One week later, “Dashed Hopes” made headlines.

According to most sources, Hamas is refusing to free Schalit because Israel is digging in its heels over the release of 15 Palestinian prisoners. One of those is Ahlam Tamimi. She is serving 16 consecutive life sentences for her role in the 2001 terror bombing of Jerusalem’s Sbarro restaurant. Fifteen civilians died, eight of them children, one of them my daughter Malki.

“I’m not sorry for what I did,” Tamimi said two years ago from her cell. “We’ll become free from the occupation, and then I will be free from prison.”

The Gaza blockade is a worthy alternative to the dangerous option that Israel is pursuing. We must protest the opening of our borders with Gaza, or our children could soon face a free Tamimi again.

Can we risk that?

The writer is a freelancer in Jerusalem. Her daughter Malki was murdered at 15 in the Sbarro restaurant bombing (2001). She and her husband founded the Malki Foundation which provides concrete support for Israeli families of all faiths for home care of a special-needs child.

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