Mideast: Still Waiting for News of Gilad

It has been almost nine months since Palestinian militants crept across the Gaza border and snatched Gilad Schalit, a 19-year-old corporal in the Israeli military. In the aftermath of the kidnapping, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded forcefully, sending in tanks and bombing key ministries. But after months of war, Schalit is still missing, and authorities haven't received a sign of life from the soldier in almost six months. Still, news that Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah had agreed to form a national-unity government raised hopes of a breakthrough in the negotiations. As Schalit's family awaited further developments, NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino spoke with the soldier's father, Noam, at his home in the northern Israeli village of Hila. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When's the last time you heard from Gilad?
NOAM SCHALIT:
Back in September, before the New Year's holiday, we received a letter from Gilad. It was sent to the Egyptian mediators. Basically, it said that he'd like the [Israeli] prime minister and the secretary of defense to release [Palestinian] prisoners in order that he would be able to come home soon. It was in his handwriting, but it was obvious that it was dictated to him.

Three different groups – Hamas, the Army of Islam and the Popular Resistance Committees – claimed credit for Gilad's kidnapping. How do you know who to deal with?
The key to releasing him is with the Hamas military wing. They receive orders from [Damascus-based political bureau leader] Khaled Meshaal. He's the one that has the key.

There have been a lot of rumors lately that a prisoner swap is imminent. What are you hearing?
So many headlines … Most of it is disinformation, spin from the Palestinian side. There's a lot of pressure from the Palestinian street to conclude this exchange. So they report that there's been progress, and then say that Israel is blocking the deal. Unfortunately, the Israeli media are not so accurate, either. They just use it to sell newspapers.

Are you talking to the negotiators? What are the sticking points to a prisoner swap?
I think the number of prisoners [in the exchange] is more or less accepted. But Hamas wants to dictate 100 percent of the names, and they won't release any of the names until Israel accepts that principle. I talked with [Israeli negotiator Ofer] Dekel yesterday, and there's still no list of prisoners.


Do you think the Palestinian power-sharing deal will help?
Yes, this is a lever that could push them to resolve this crisis. Especially the Fatah side. [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas would like to resolve this crisis in order to obtain [financial] support [from the international community]. They would like to make a new start. The whole idea is to make a new start. The question is whether he can be effective.

But the Palestinians would have to do more than just release Gilad to get funding resumed. Hamas would also have to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Yes, but this is the cork that can make a change.

Still, Israeli officials have said they won't work with the new unity government.
Israel will have to—in some way—deal with this administration. In practice, Israel will have to deal with them.

How do you think Olmert has handled Gilad's case so far?
He would like very much to resolve this crisis. But the rate is very slow. Very slow and very frustrating.

When's the last time you pressed your case with Olmert?
A week ago. Nine days ago in Jerusalem. We asked for this meeting because we didn't see any progress being made. This is almost nine months now. There's been a lot of talk and a lot of declarations, but no results whatsoever. I told him, "We expect results. We've had enough of talking and declarations."

How did he respond?
Basically, he said he knows it's been a long time. He has his interests and we have our interests, and our interests are not identical. They overlap, but they're not identical.

How so?
He has to consider the criticism that will emerge – from the right, criticism from the families of terror victims [in the event of a prisoner exchange].

A lot of Israelis are already calling for Olmert's resignation and new elections. Do you share that view?
I'm not a political commentator. All I know is that a new election right now – it's not healthy. Economically, and from an international point of view – it's not a wise thing to do right now. I would like that he will be judged by history, and not by politicians and lawyers and one committee or another committee. What counts is what will happen in the next few years.

Without the advantage of hindsight, do you think Olmert was right to respond so forcefully in Gaza to Gilad's kidnapping?
You have to give it the bottom-line test. It didn't give us any results. Except Palestinians killed and wounded—most of them not involved. And some devastation here and there of roads and bridges. The bottom line is: it didn't give us any results.

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