06.03.10

How to Free Gaza

Critics of Israel’s blockade are perfectly right to oppose it. But if they really want to put the Netanyahu government in a corner, Peter Beinart says, they should also take up the cause of an Israeli captive of Hamas.

An Israeli journalist named Eitan Haber recently made an intriguing proposal. When the next ship determined to puncture Israel’s blockade comes steaming toward the Gaza Strip, Israel should let it through on one condition: Its crew must bring food and supplies not only to the suffering people of Gaza, but to Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who Hamas is holding captive. The activists should deliver the aid with a public demand: Release Shalit immediately, without conditions.

One can imagine all sorts of practical objections to Haber’s proposal. Israeli hawks might say it provides a fig leaf for undermining the embargo. Israel’s critics might say it’s wrong to focus only on Shalit and not the many Palestinians held in Israeli jails. But Haber’s suggestion has several virtues. First, it would bring Israeli and global opinion closer. One of the reasons that so many around the world cannot fathom Israel’s policy toward Gaza, and that so many Israelis cannot fathom the world’s anger toward Israel, is that non-Israelis barely think about Gilad Shalit and Israelis can’t stop thinking about him. Since Palestinian militants abducted Shalit in 2006, Hamas has steadfastly refused to let the Red Cross visit him, in violation of international law. And while Hamas leaders have sometimes claimed that Shalit is being treated well, a high-ranking Hamas official told the newspaper Al-Hayat in January that “we are not interested in his well-being at all… since he is as good as a cat or less.” Watching television coverage of the Gaza standoff in Europe, the Middle East, and even the U.S., you could easily forget Shalit exists. In Israel, by contrast, one television anchor signs off every newscast by noting how many days the young soldier has been held.

If you are for ending the collective punishment of Gaza regardless of whether Shalit is released, as I am, you should also be for releasing Shalit, regardless of whether the blockade ends or Palestinian prisoners are freed.

The second thing I like about Haber’s proposal is that it would put the anti-blockade activists to the test. Their empathy for the people of Gaza is commendable. I wish it would rub off on the Israeli government’s American defenders, who blithely declare that the people of Gaza are not starving, as if they would for one day tolerate the collective punishment of a population of Jews, no matter who those Jews had voted for. What is less clear, however, is the activists’ empathy for the people of Israel. Were activists in Ireland and Malaysia and Turkey to take up Shalit’s cause, it would embarrass Hamas to no end. Hamas would likely reply that it cannot release Shalit unless Israel releases the Palestinians prisoners it holds, and perhaps Israel should release some of them. But the activists could answer that there is no justification for deliberately harming the innocent. That, after all, is what they say about Israel’s blockade. If you are for ending the collective punishment of Gaza (which is not the same as trying to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons) regardless of whether Shalit is released, as I am, you should also be for releasing Shalit, regardless of whether the blockade ends or Palestinian prisoners are freed.

The final virtue of turning the Free Gaza Movement into an Free Gaza/Free Gilad Shalit movement would be that it would make it harder for Benjamin Netanyahu and his American supporters to stay in their moral bunker. The tragedy of Israel’s current government, and of its American defenders, is that they begin with the assumption that the world will always hate Israel, and then take actions that make that prophecy come true. They need to be proven wrong, shown that Israel’s isolation does not stem primarily from some innate gentile hatred of Jews, but from Israel’s own self-destructive policies. Of course, some people still read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but at a time when the entire Arab League has offered to recognize Israel’s right to exist within 1967 borders, the claim that gentiles (or even Muslims) will always hate Jews must be discredited. The Free Gaza activists, by showing that they care about Jewish suffering too, could help.

When Gilad Shalit was abducted, he was also injured. In 2007, in an audio tape released by Hamas, he said his health was declining and he needed immediate medical care. In a videotape last fall, he looked gaunt. The irony isn’t hard to grasp. Shalit’s fate, in a macabre way, echoes the fate of the people of Gaza. He is imprisoned; they are imprisoned. They are dependent on their jailors for food; he is dependent on his jailors for food. They die because they cannot leave Gaza to get sophisticated medical care; he may die because he cannot leave Gaza to get sophisticated medical care. So here’s my suggestion for the anti-blockade activists who have not heretofore expressed much concern for Shalit’s fate: Think of him as a Gazan—a caged, brutalized, Gazan Jew.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.