Gilad Shalit: just one person

Not long before Operation Cast Lead and the terrible loss of life that resulted from it, an Israeli woman living in the border town of Sderot told a BBC reporter, “I hope that Israel does go into Gaza – even if citizens there get hurt. Because here in Sderot we are getting hurt.”

I was angry when I read Hava Gad’s words for the first time, nearly three years ago. Angry at the apparent vindictiveness, the obliviousness to the extent of Gazan suffering – the poverty, the dizzying unemployment rate, the lack of decent healthcare, the serious water crisis. How could this woman possibly wish any worse on people? I’ve never forgotten her. Back in January, as I browsed through a bookshop in Jerusalem, I saw a title that made me think of her at once: Victory For Us is to See You Suffer.

I still find that an ugly sentiment, but now I have a little more compassion for the people who hold it. Returning to the BBC article, I read Hava’s statement again and saw things that hadn’t registered with me three years ago: her anxieties at getting by on a low salary, her disillusionment with all the Israeli political parties, and her concern over her children. “If I have to choose between my son or someone else’s son, I choose my son.”

This is the same sort of attitude that led to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who is now entering his sixth year of captivity in Gaza. He is being held by Hamas. They used him on a poster in 2007, showing a masked militant clutching his photograph in the foreground, while in the background a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner crouches in the corner of an Israeli jail cell. The caption reads, “They are not alone.” In another incidence, Hamas broadcast a cartoon that showed Shalit pleading with a Palestinian child for his release. The child refuses, telling Shalit that he has got too many relatives in Israeli jails for that.

Administrative detention is practiced in Israel, with Palestinian prisoners routinely being held for years without charge or trial. “Every night they come into the West Bank and take boys,” my old landlady once said sadly. “Every night.” I soon saw the truth of that. It happens frequently in the refugee camps. The people who are arrested at midnight and transferred illegally to prisons in Israel are sometimes as young as twelve. Their ‘crime’ might be throwing stones at a military jeep. Torture is common. I have spoken to ex-prisoners in Dheisheh refugee camp who spent years in jail without knowing why they were there. Most painful of all was a conversation with a woman whose son is currently in prison. She is barred from visiting him. She doesn’t know when or if she will see him again. Like Hava Gad’s words, that woman’s face has stayed with me. She didn’t cry or show any emotion. She was past that point. Has been for years. She just looked frozen.

It is easy to see why Shalit’s captivity has been marketed to people in her position as a twisted sort of comfort. When you are in pain yourself, it is natural to want somebody to feel it with you. This is the very definition of compassion – it translates literally as ‘suffering with’. Harming the people you see as responsible for your own pain is a poisoned and perverted expression of the basic human need to receive compassion.

Whenever Gilad Shalit is mentioned, I often hear the plight of Palestinian prisoners (especially the children, of whom there are over two hundred) being flung out in response. It’s done as a way of dismissing Shalit (“He’s just one person!”) and cheapening the pain felt by his family. Yes, he is just one person – but that’s the point. Gilad Shalit’s mum must feel every bit as bad as the mother I met in Dheisheh. Is it any comfort to Aviva Shalit that her son isn’t one of thousands? Is it any comfort to the woman in Dheisheh that her son is?

Individual suffering is what matters here. When huge numbers are involved, we have to remember that each number has a name and a face. To dismiss the pain of one person in Shalit’s position is to dismiss the pain of everybody who shares in it, and that is not right.

In her remarks about her children’s welfare (“If I have to choose between my son and somebody else’s son…”) Hava Gad set up a false dichotomy. None of us has to make a choice like that. No one working for peace and justice in Palestine should feel any need to meet concern for Gilad Shalit with commentary on Israel’s unjust and inhumane behaviour. It’s possible to care for every prisoner, everywhere, because unlike imported goods to Gaza, there isn’t a quota on compassion.