Yael Roth-Barkai and her sister, Ruth Barkai, do not need a protest march or a commemoration day to work toward obtaining the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The two women are behind the longest continuous demonstration in the country's history: For nearly two years their movement calling for Shalit's release has been stationed in a tent opposite the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. Seven days a week, 15 hours a day, with two to three people on each shift, 500 volunteers have kept this demonstration going.
They were there the last time the Shalit family came to Jerusalem and made a visit to the tent. Their efforts faced a major setback after former prime minister Ehud Olmert announced at a dramatic news conference that a deal with Hamas to secure the soldier's release had not been reached.
The family members and other protesters left, but the Barkai sisters continued manning the tent. Unlike the others, they are not afraid to talk about the cost of a prisoner swap, nor are they deterred by generals who argue that the efforts weakens Israel's bargaining position.
Yael Roth-Barkai, how did the demonstration begin?
We were walking around like many people in the State of Israel, feeling there is a problem here and that something must be done to bring Gilad Shalit home. We went to a few demonstrations and took part in all sorts of events - marking his birthday, group singing - but we had a very bad feeling. We felt it was pathetic. That perhaps these were activities for the general public and to raise awareness, but they were not focused on achieving the goal. If a civil society wants to say its piece, it has to say it in front of the decision makers. I don't believe that all these events really promote the issue.
We thought we could do something that would irk the prime minister. We thought about what I might have done if it was my child - and I would have sat in front of the prime minister's house day and night. We started tossing the idea around. Everyone said it was a good idea and that something had to be done. Over the summer vacation [the two sisters are lecturers at colleges of education] we realized that if we wanted to man the tent, we needed at least 150 people to commit to come for two hours, twice a week. We sent an e-mail to a large distribution list and within five hours 100 people [had volunteered]. Many were people we don't know - and so we said that if there are already 100 people, we can easily do it.
We did painstaking work and sat in front of the computer to fill in the first two weeks. On September 14, 2008, we started manning the tent. That day we took a folding table and two chairs. We put together a special calendar; by then it was 812 days since he had been taken into captivity. We only had room on the calendar for three digits; we never imagined we would be there for more than a month. It was very surprising and sad when we reached the thousandth day.
And when we started it was amazing. Every two hours a person would come - usually someone we didn't know. Over time, we streamlined the process from an administrative point of view. We enlisted another two sisters and three friends, with each given responsibility for a particular day of the week. Everything was done by e-mail, without a single telephone call. I'm not sure it could have been done differently.
After the failure of the previous round of protests and Olmert's press conference, did you consider stopping the effort?
It delivered a tremendous blow to our spirits. There had been a feeling in the air that this time it would happen. Perhaps it's my nature to be optimistic, but it was really tough. After that, we still had hope that the new prime minister would find it easier to carry out the exchange. We thought that Benjamin Netanyahu would be beneficial [to our cause]. It never occurred to us to leave.
During the past two years we've had moments of crisis and despair and exhaustion. We are constantly shoring up volunteers. But we felt that leaving would send a message that we had given up and we didn't feel that we were entitled to do that. But we are nothing. The important people are the 500 amazing volunteers - they are the key element of this effort and they deserve all the credit. I would give this interview to them.
Who are the people manning the shifts?
Really, it's everybody. There are some ultra-Orthodox people, although not a lot - but there are women, men, religious, secular, students, young people, high school students, grandmothers and senior citizens. This story has shattered all of my preconceived notions about names; for example, there is someone named Maayan there and she is 83 years old. This diversity strengthened us because if the prime minister is attentive to the public, then there is a sense that the consensus is broad - there is a sense that the majority does not oppose the deal [for a prisoner swap].
Unlike other activists working to free Shalit, you are not afraid to speak about the cost.
We have to discuss what is being demanded. Because to say that he should be released and not say how does not seem pragmatic to us. It's true that it is possible to say that the manner of the release is the prime minister's business, but we thought that for the sake of the strength of Israeli society and its sense of mutual responsibility, whoever is required to be released should be released, including those with blood on their hands. According to them, our soldiers also have blood on their hands.
How do you respond to the criticism that the demonstration is actually prolonging Shalit's release instead of bringing it closer?
That is precisely the reason we are still here. If you believe that concept - that protest raises the price - then that is an excellent reason to stay there, in order to warn the prime minister that he should accept the deal now before the price increases any further.
But anyway, it's not as if the deal is proceeding when there is no protest going on. If we did not have the precedent set by the case of Ron Arad, I could believe this interpretation - where if you keep quiet, better things happen. But the shadow of Ron Arad is hovering overhead, and it is impossible to ignore it. Capitulating to Hamas is presented as a blow to national strength, but the abandonment of a soldier is the real blow to our national strength - and this is a message that is important for us, as citizens, to adhere to.
Is there any indication that your demonstration has made an impact?
Aliza Olmert invited us inside and told us that the situation bothers her, so of course that gave us a lot of encouragement. As for Netanyahu, we have not seen any reaction, but we see him coming and going and that gives us strength because we know he sees us. It would have been better if he could see us through the window, as he walks from the living room to the bedroom, but because of all the security concerns that is not possible and we are little bit far away, but I am certain that they are aware of our presence. Everything has already been said, but our message is that we will not budge from our tent and we will continue to convey our message until Shalit returns home.
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