Ya’ara Winkler - Hagai Frid
Ya’ara Winkler. “It may be easier for me to voice criticism of the government and of many other things that are connected to Gilad.” Photo by Hagai Frid
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During the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl on Monday night, Yoel Shalit, the brother of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and his girlfriend, Ya'ara Winkler, a 26-year-old student, burst onto the podium. They were carrying a sign which read "Gilad is still alive." For many watching the scene, it was a first glimpse of this girlfriend, who has become an integral part of the Shalit family over the past two years.

Ya'ara Winkler, how are you, 36 hours after the fact?

We feel strengthened that we did the right thing. We've been getting tons of phone calls and text messages from people we don't even know - we have no idea where they got our telephone numbers from - as well as from journalists, families and public figures who say, 'well done,' and that we should have done this sooner, and that next time we should invite them to join us.

But you didn't do it for support. You've had that for five years. The public is with you on marches, in the tent outside the prime minister's residence, stickers, demonstrations, everything. It's not much of an achievement to get supportive responses.

True, but something here is significantly different. Until now, those who were opposed to us could say OK, people support you because you're part of the establishment. And, just look, we conducted a protest that hit the establishment's soft underbelly, and people continue to support us. That's a different kind of support, not something to be taken for granted.

And the conclusion you've drawn is that the people also support handing over however many terrorists it takes to release Gilad.

Yes, but I want to point out that we, as a family and as an organization, never said "at any price." The price that has to be paid is known and feasible. We didn't invent the fact that it's feasible. There are military leaders who say it's feasible, and this has to be said so that the prime minister doesn't hide behind his fears and descend to the lowest common denominator in the nation - that is fear - and expect support to emerge. He must be a leader and do what will bring him support out of leadership and not out of fear. The price is not the story. Israeli governments, including the current one and its predecessor, have already agreed to most of the names on the [Palestinian] list. In the end, the issue they have today with the agreement has nothing to do with the names but with where to release [the prisoners].

And you believe this is the real story?

We've heard it from enough sources to feel that we're getting reliable information, and I don't think there is any interest in lying about this to the public. I hope for the government's sake it's not lying to the public at this level - although I must say that it surprises me that the State of Israel has essentially said through this that it has a hard time defending its borders. Unfortunately, we've seen terror attacks against civilians over these past five years and they're not connected to Gilad's being held hostage or not. There will always be thousands who will try and come after us in every place and time. Our job is not to blame captured soldiers or those who are killed, but rather to find a way to protect our borders. You can't put the entire defense establishment on Gilad's shoulders. You can't.

You're always saying "we" and "us." You've been with Gilad's brother Yoel a little more than two years, and you can go so far as to feel part of the family?

Of course. For starters, I felt part of the struggle even before I met Yoel. I was very active on behalf of Gilad in the first two years. At the time, I was a student in Be'er Sheva, and several friends and I had a stand with posters, and we went to all the demonstrations, so it was a part of me before as well. Being part of the family from the inside for two years has to do with the fact that I am a very family-oriented person, so it was natural for me to connect and become a part of it. And that's without any connection to the fact that circumstances forced me to grow even closer to them, so much so that on the march, the four of us walked together, and in some places the four of us slept in the same room.

What connected you to the struggle for Gilad from the start?

I don't know what to tell you. I've been a social activist since I was 14. I served on the student council and was active in many civil causes all during my teenage years. Apparently it was a gut feeling that seemed terribly natural to me. It wasn't only for Gilad; it was also for Udi [Goldwasser] and Eldad [Regev]."

It's amazing that you say "Udi" and "Eldad" instead of Goldwasser and Regev.

They're human beings!

Goldwasser and Regev are also human beings.

Yes, but . . . I know that for us it's very difficult when people say "Gilad Shalit" because it's as if he's become a symbol. For us, he's Gilad. That makes him more genuine.

Yesterday, you said a few times that the protest at the Independence Day ceremony marks a step up in the struggle and that from now on it will have a different tone. What's changed? Why now?

It's all part of a process. If you ask me, the place we're at now is a result of something that began a year ago, when we set out on the [cross country] march. In the weeks we sat at home and felt it was enough to take the advice to stay home - "we're working on it" - we really did sit at home and believed that something would happen. When we decided to set out on a march, we understood that we were setting out for a different type of struggle, which has since intensified. Even if the ceremony was the biggest step we've taken until now, it is not the only one. We've done many other things. We've taken action in places that are - how did the prime minister put it? - hidden from the eye. We, too, have been active behind the scenes, out of the public eye, out of a belief that with every step, we first and foremost consider whether or not it is good for Gilad.

What kind of activities are "out from the public eye"?

These are things we aren't talking about, at least not at this stage.

Razi Barkai told you yesterday, and he's right, that you speak in a completely different voice from what we've heard from the family until now. How much does your presence in the family account for the move toward a change in tactics?

Pardon me if I evade the question a bit. I can say with the greatest modesty that each one of us in the family plays his part, and brings what he can, to the best of his ability. Based on my experience in quite a few protests, I perhaps bring a little self-confidence, perhaps the ability to fight the establishment without being afraid of it.

Could it be that not having blood ties helps and that because he isn't your brother you have more freedom?

He's a blood relative of the people who are dearest to me in the world, but that may be. After all, I don't know him. It may be easier for me to voice criticism of the government and of many other things that are connected to Gilad, and I sound more like a citizen and member of the public and less like the family, though I really try to maintain both voices on this matter."

The people who are dearest to you? And where is your family in this story?

My family and Yoel's family are both my family.