Return Gilad Shalit, but Not at Any Price

Those fighting for Shalit's release should have been the first to say Israel should not act like Hamas.

There is no need to waste more words on everyone's desire to see Gilad Shalit return home. There is also no need to spare praise for the noble struggle his family has been waging. Shalit should have been released at any price, but the struggle for his release does not have to be conducted at any price. Last week the leaders of the campaign to free him faltered. The demonstration at the Megiddo prison that prevented visits by prisoners' families was in poor taste. A few weeks earlier they also demonstrated at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border and blocked the passage of food and medicine to the besieged Strip.

That's not how to do things. They should have called for visits for everyone: to Shalit and to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Under no circumstances should it have been the reverse. Israel cannot behave like Hamas. It is not only a matter of patently ineffective measures - the siege and prevention of visits will not bring Shalit's release - but also immoral acts. People who want prisoner visits to be prevented are equating Israel and Hamas; they are saying cruelty must be met with cruelty - inhumane treatment for everyone. Even at such a difficult time, one would have expected a more moral message from the leaders of the campaign to release Shalit, including the Shalit family.

About 7,700 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israel, including about 450 without the benefit of a trial. Most of them are not murderers, although they are all automatically labeled as such here. The demonstrators at Megiddo would do well to realize this. Some of the prisoners are political detainees in the full sense of the word, from members of the Palestinian parliament imprisoned without trial, which is a scandal in and of itself, to those behind bars because of their "affiliation." Innocent people are among them as well as political activists and nonviolent protesters.

Some prisoners received disproportionate sentences from the military justice system, treatment that in no way resembles a fair trial. At the Megiddo prison, at whose entrance the Shalit campaign's leaders demonstrated, minors are also imprisoned, and not in a separate facility as required. They were sometimes sentenced to a year in prison for every stone they threw, even if they didn't hit anyone and caused no damage. There are also wretched Palestinians who were caught staying in Israel illegally and were willing to risk everything for one day of work. Some also were falsely accused by soldiers or collaborators and were powerless to defend themselves in the military judicial system, which views every Palestinian as suspicious.

Some of the prisoners from Gaza have not had family visits or a single telephone call for at least three years. That's not Hamas. That's us. Not all prisoners from the West Bank are allowed visitors, and many of their families are "forbidden." The Israeli propaganda machine, which portrays prison as if it were a rest home, is also deceptive. It should be remembered that most of the Palestinian prisoners decided to take the fate of their people into their hands to fight a criminal occupation, even if they sometimes used methods that were even more criminal. According to the Palestinians, they are serving their people precisely as Shalit, a soldier, served his.

Hamas' current struggle to have the prisoners released began after all other avenues to secure their freedom proved fruitless. Israel should have moved to release most of the prisoners a long time ago as a confidence-building measure and goodwill demonstration, not as a subject for cruel bargaining and haggling, which sends the depressing message that we can only be dealt with by force. Israel chose to cut off other avenues, leaving only kidnappings and bargaining as an option.

Those fighting for Shalit's release should have been the first to sound the alarm: We should not act like Hamas. Shalit's plight will not improve because the plight of the prisoners and Gaza residents worsens. Shalit is one person and there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners, yet the whole world has been turned upside down only over the struggle for Shalit's release.

It is an important public-relations advantage, and we shouldn't spoil it with measures that are only meant to avenge, punish and outdo the other side in terms of cruelty. Everyone who holds the fate of Shalit and the State of Israel dear should aspire for the release of both the captive soldier and a large portion of the imprisoned Palestinians. We're talking about relief and joy for both the Shalit family and the Barghouti family.

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