Moussa was 25. Too young to die, too old to live in a student’s hostel. He did not have the luxury of patriotism. What was Palestine? Home? A country? Occupied territory? His papers said he was a Palestinian. He had never lived there. Egypt, Jordan, India, where we had met several years ago. He dragged his legs listlessly as we sat in a dark corner, away from the raucous voices. Or, perhaps to understand silence? He, too, was a prisoner. There was nowhere he could go and feel he belonged. As a child, he had watched war films; he wanted to join the army. Which army? His father, a scientist, had decided to submerge the identity question. The world is a big place, he told his son. Education is important. At 25, Moussa was struggling with degrees, higher qualifications, rolled up papers he might have wanted to scrunch and throw away. He would never wear a beret or hold a gun and offer a stiff salute. In those days, the Palestinian army was not organised. His family had chosen the option of rootlessness.
He dragged his feet as he bid me goodbye refusing to step out into the light.
I think of him today as I see another 25-year-old. Gilad Shalit’s homecoming is being celebrated the world over. The Israeli soldier was taken prisoner by Hamas five years ago. In a move that should shock people, he has been swapped with 1027 Palestinian prisoners.
To dismiss this as another social networking crusade would be just one part of the story. The political angle, where Benjamin Netanyahu the humanist prevails, is another shrewd one. Then there is the role of Egypt, not the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, but of the rebel-propped rulers. This is the wonderful western touch, the preparation of a proxy.
Possibly the worst dimension is that one innocent soldier is being used as a symbol of Israeli supremacy as opposed to the terrorists. This is drama of a high order where his every move has been traced, from the helicopter, to the parade in the convoy, to his interview, to the meeting with family and the outpouring of joy by his supporters. His supporters?
As a captured soldier, his bravery is by default; his rank has already been pushed up. There are assumptions about his ill-treatment. It is true that Amnesty did not have access to him. Do human rights organisations have access to the many individuals who are captured? Did they have access to the over 1000 prisoners that are being released in the ‘arrangement’? Will they criticise the slurs on those released?
True, Shalit was injured; he is a soldier. He was on duty. There are daily skirmishes going on in the territory. The Hamas took him prisoner. He might have been given the status of a prisoner of war if the war was certified and recognisable. It is not. Nobody knows when they will be attacked and by whom. It is not so surprising though that Shalit is being deified. He does not look pugnacious. Reports even quote his friends as saying, “He doesn’t bother anyone, not even a fly. He just wanted to be left in peace, like his family.” One assumes the Israeli army was aware of that when he was being trained to fight the Palestinians.
This frail young man now stands alone against a bunch of lumpen elements that the honourable Israeli government has let off, but not without a warning: the fight against terrorism will continue. Responding to the celebrations in Gaza over the return of the Palestinian prisoners, he said, “Here we don’t celebrate murderers and turn them into heroes. We believe in the sanctity of life.”
Getting back one soldier and holding him up to the world is not enough. The sanctity of life is not about just one side. Has there been a count of the numbers killed? Indeed, there are a few of the released prisoners who have murdered Israelis, but what about the dead Palestinians?
The groundwork for the humane coup has been laid. Shalit needs to be examined and kept a watch on for the damage the confinement might have caused him. No one is concerned about the swapped prisoners. The descriptions too are revealing. As reported in The Telegraph:
“Pandemonium as the first buses carrying the freed prisoners arrives in Gaza City’s Katiba Square. People are setting off endless bangers as Hamas songs blare in the background. The prisoners get off the buses, waving solemnly to the crowds, before being led into a mosque behind the flower-strewn dais where they will eventually take their seats
Israelis release a dove as they celebrate the release of Gilad Shalit.”
This horde of unruly men will go to a mosque. The dove is for the Israelis. This portion did not mention the street scenes, the flags, and the outpouring of patriotism by the Israelis.
The Hamas has already said that they will take more soldiers prisoners. The BBC has a pat analysis: “Palestinian politics is a zero-sum game. For now, Hamas will bask in the glow of having got more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one man. Mr. Abbas, while publicly welcoming the exchange, woke up this morning a politically weakened figure. But when the jail doors open – probably next Tuesday – and people begin going home to their families, it will be clearer that key political Palestinian militants, seen as heroes by many people in the occupied territories, will still be behind bars. Hamas has just played their only trump card. It has unquestionably won the round. But will it be enough to win them the game?
This question should be posed to Mr. Netanyahu. He has for the moment successfully played Hamas against Fatah. Besides, there is no way to gauge which prisoners are more dangerous because it is not about the number of people killed. If that were the case, then Israel would not bet on one soldier, would it?
Daniel Taub, the Israel’s UK ambassador, believes: “At its root, the decision to make the deal was not won by pragmatic arguments or realpolitik. We are bringing Gilad home, and paying the painful price, not because we know that this is the correct strategic decision, but because of our profound conviction that it ought to be. The bittersweet joy of the moment presents a challenge to us all. If this indeed is not a world in which placing supreme value on a single human life is the best course of action, then let us work to make it one.”
History is full of instances where “a single life” was employed for strategic victories. People identify with an individual trauma, rather than a group. It is humanised, and naturally so. One can fully comprehend a father’s emotions, but when Shalit reportedly told an Egyptian television channel that he would like peace between Israel and Palestine, there was anger, they said he was misunderstood. In the next few days, he will have to tell stories of his imprisonment. There is no other option.
He has not been bartered for peace, but for war. Shalit will have to show the scars that are there. And some that are not.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/