A Vital Visit

Withholding information about Shalit for more than three years is inhumane, and no carefully scripted videotape can make up for this.

Anyone who did not notice the incomprehensible gap between the Goldstone Commission's unequivocal conclusions condemning Israel and its intentions during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza on one hand, and the delicate, indecisive wording the panel adopted when speaking against the Palestinians on the other, would do well to read the small portion of its report devoted to "the continuing detention of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit."

The official version of the report devotes only two of its 452 pages to Shalit's captivity, aside from a few fleeting mentions of his name in its description of the background to the operation. And while its declarations are usually quite harsh, the report adopts very terse, restrained language on this matter.

The panel recognizes Shalit as a prisoner of war, and thus someone protected by the Third Geneva Convention. Preventing the Red Cross from visiting someone covered by this convention is a severe blow to, and a gross violation of, international humanitarian law. But the commission's report declines to dwell on this, or to detail the convention's explicit provisions on the matter, or even - heaven forbid - stress that Shalit has been held captive for more than three years, with precious little information on his condition being relayed to his family or any authorized agency.

The videotape of him that was aired on Friday, after more than 1,200 days in Hamas captivity in an unknown location, does nothing to mitigate the severity of the abuse done to Shalit and his family by withholding all information about his situation. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted, the video did "settle" the question of whether Gilad is alive, but it did little beyond that. And the difference between releasing this video and allowing Red Cross personnel to meet Shalit is enormous.

The video, every last detail of which was dictated by his captors, is liable to be erroneously considered an appropriate substitute for visits to Shalit by Red Cross personnel. However, at the very least it must be remembered that the video was not handed over so as to meet some minimal international requirement, but rather in exchange for the release of female Palestinian prisoners who were convicted of serious crimes.

The entire drawn-out Shalit affair merits only a terse description in the Goldstone report, and the lion's share even of that is devoted to the fact that Israel attacked buildings in Gaza and arrested Palestinian government officials in an effort to secure his release. Noam Shalit's appearance before the Goldstone Commission in Geneva this past July merits two sentences, as does the anemic conclusion in the report about Hamas' obligation to allow his son to have contact with the outside world and a Red Cross visit "without delay."

As far as is known, the commission's members did not demand that they be allowed to visit Shalit during the time they spent in Gaza. But in the two pages of the report devoted to the soldier, they do express concern about statements made by Israeli leaders regarding the continuing "blockade" of Gaza as long as Shalit remains in captivity. The commission views this as "collective punishment" of the civilian population. The panel also noted that it heard testimony from witnesses indicating that during Cast Lead, Israeli soldiers interrogated detained Palestinians about Shalit's whereabouts.

It is hard to believe that the Goldstone report's recommendation that Shalit be allowed a visit "without delay" will resonate internationally. But that does not mean it was superfluous to mention it, alongside the demands for an independent investigation into the 36 incidents described in the report. And nonimplementation of the report's conclusions regarding Red Cross visits ought to revitalize the demand to deny family visits to Hamas prisoners held in Israel.

A few months ago, a group of Knesset members introduced a bill to prevent family visits to any prisoner belonging to a terrorist organization that holds an Israeli citizen or resident in captivity, but refuses to allow visits to said Israeli captive. This proposal - which the government could implement even without a law - is neither disproportionate nor a violation of international law, as it would still permit such prisoners to be visited by their lawyers and the Red Cross.

Withholding information about Shalit for more than three years is inhumane, and no carefully scripted videotape can make up for this. If the tape that was aired indicates, as Hamas claims, that Shalit is in good health and has "excellent relations" with his captors, as the soldier says in his carefully supervised statement - then Hamas has nothing to hide. Israel must continue to insist that Red Cross personnel be allowed to visit the captive soldier. Indeed, such a visit must be the next step.