On Thursday, a small "flotilla" of boats will make their way down the Hudson River and up the East River to the U.N. to call attention to the plight of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier imprisoned by Hamas for what will soon be four years. What’s the point, some people will ask. Is this the best way to help?
There’s no easy answer, but you can that the several hundred people on board — which, if all goes as planned, will include me — will be doing more than than they would had they stayed home. It will certainly be meaningful for Gilad’s family. There’s sure to be good media coverage, and if nothing else, tourists at the pier, on the Circle Line boats that pass, at the Statue of Liberty and, perhaps, even some diplomats at the United Nations will see the signs and spend a moment of their busy day thinking about him. Maybe those under the impression that Gaza is a besieged utopia of wine and roses will even look deeper into the matter.
If they do, they’ll see how the story of Israel’s missing soldiers speaks volumes about the state of the peace process.
Some, captured during the war in Lebanon that began in 1982, have been unheard from for the better part of 30 years. More recently, Shalit has been held by Hamas, which actively negotiates for his release, since he was captured near Gaza. There is recent proof that he’s alive. Given the willingness of the Israeli government to do almost anything to get them back, even wading into ethically murky waters by trading hundreds of terrorists, it is in the self-interest of the militant captors to keep these men healthy and eventually make a deal, of which they will almost certainly get the longer end of the stick.
But not one of these soldiers has ever been released alive. Elchanan Tennenbaum, an Israeli businessman and retired colonel is the only recent Israeli to be released alive in a prisoner swap with Arab captors, at the cost 435 prisoners from Israeli jails.
The ugly truth is that the life expectancy of an Israeli, particularly an active soldier, in a terrorist’s jail is bound to be brutally short, and their fate is almost unbearable to ponder.
In 2008, Hezbollah turned over the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured nearly two years earlier in a raid specifically intended to gain Israeli prisoners. The ransom was five live terrorists and nearly 200 bodies. We may never know how long they were held before they were murdered. But we are also left to wonder what kind of better deal their captors could have made in exchange for two healthy soldiers, if they were capable of acting in their self-interest rather than brutal hatred.
I met Goldwasser’s parents in Israel in the summer of 2007, about a year into their ordeal. Against hope, his mother Mickey quietly explained how she was keeping a scrapbook of all the efforts on his behalf to present to him on his return. In the most moving terms, she spoke about how she worried about her son being kept clean and fed.
I also had a chance, long ago, to meet Yona Baumel, whose son, Zachary, was captured in Lebanon with his tank crew in 1982. About 15 years into his unspeakable ordeal, Mr. Baumel was still confident, too, that Zachary was being held alive, although it made no sense, in the absence of a deal in that time period, that his captors were still sustaining him.
Yona Baumel died a year ago at 81, a few days before the June 11 anniversary of his son’s disappearance, without any confirmation of his son’s fate. May God spare Gilad Shalit’s parents anything close to that life of agony.
If trying to walk across the Hudson could alleviate a moment of their ordeal, and Gilad’s, my hunch is you would see hundreds of Jewish New Yorkers line up to try that, too.