When we spent the 2007-2008 school year in Israel, there was one day in particular that stood out at me, a day that I knew I would never forget. Sunday, November 4th was not only my nephew’s circumcision ceremony in Jerusalem but also that of the baby boy born to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, both celebrated on the 12th anniversary of the former prime minister’s assassination. At the time, I was flooded with memories of Benjamin’s birth, which had coincided with Rabin and Arafat’s handshake and attempt to make peace.
Now, I have a new date on my mind, one that stands alongside November 4th in import and meaning: Tuesday, October 18, 2011. It is the day that one of the most publicly recognized Israeli soliders, Gilad Shalit, was traded for 1,027 imprisoned Arab and Palestinian suspected terrorists. It is a day when almost every Israeli and Palestinian kept their eyes on the television from beginning to end.
Simone, Daniella and I were up north in Haifa, staying with our friends Laurie and Miles. Upon rising from bed that Tuesday morning at the Rubin’s, I heard American English news broadcasts, drawing me into the living room. My girls wandered in a few moments later. CNN was on, showing the same scenes over and over of Gilad’s impending transfer from Hamas near the Egyptian border to the Israel Defense Forces. He was not yet pictured. Their daily newspaper Ha’Aretz was open on the dining room table, and Laurie showed us the details of his handover. I perused an article about the Israelis who were protesting his release. One of the photos was of a man who had lost his parents and siblings in the 2001 S’barro pizza shop bombing in Jerusalem. Another was the mother of a teen boy who had been lured by an Arab woman over the internet to a secret place where he was then murdered. It was hard to make sense of right and wrong: should one innocent man be set free in exchange for thousands of others who were found guilty?
We ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and headed to Yokneam to visit friends. An hour after leaving Haifa, we arrived at the Abramson’s apartment. Lori greeted us warmly, waving us inside not only because it was hot but also because the news was on. Her 13-year-old son Benjamin sat on the sofa, his eyes barely leaving the TV screen the entire morning. My girls and I took seats alongside him, watching the first appearance of Gilad. I marveled at how much had happened during our drive.
There, on the television, sat a female Egyptian journalist interviewing a young man who, at first glance, looked like any other young Israeli man. He seemed tall with broad shoulders and dark hair, a crew cut close to his skull. But the longer I looked the more I saw a weak, broken boy. Gilad was gaunt, pale, ghostly. His breath seemed uneven, labored; perhaps he was overcome by emotion as he attempted to answer the Arab woman’s questions, or perhaps he wasn’t used to seeing daylight or so many people or talking aloud in Hebrew. Most likely, he was just in shock.
“I hate to say it but he reminds me of photos of people who were in the camps,” I said to Lori.
“I was thinking the same thing,” she said. The kids heard us but didn’t respond.
Minutes passed. We watched. “Even if he makes it home today, he’ll never be the same,” I said. “How could he recover from this?” She nodded her head in agreement.
Even though Israeli media had been restricted from interviewing Gilad immediately, the Arab journalist clearly had not. She pressed on, asking him what he had missed the most while in captivity, what he was looking forward to doing once home. Then she asked him the unfathomable.
“There are over 4,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Now that you know what it’s like to be a prisoner, would you go back and work for their release?” We gasped.
“Stupid! She is so stupid!” Outraged, Benjamin shouted in both English and Hebrew at the TV screen. “How can she ask him that?”
We all spoke at the same time. “Why is he being subjected to this?”
“How is he supposed to answer that?”
Gilad remained calm, composed, in attempt to answer the question and breathe. He’d be happy, he said, to see them all released and home with their families, if they didn’t go back and engage in terrorism against Israel. Apparently, though, the Egyptian translator purposely mistranslated his Hebrew and of course didn’t mention the caveat. In the following day’s Haaretz newspaper’s paraphrase it read: Shalit also said he would be happy if remaining Palestinians held in Israeli prisons were freed to return to their own families, so long as they wouldn’t “go back to fighting against Israel.”
The journalist thanked him for his time and the interview ended. Media coverage continued but we got up to talk, have tea, and separate from the television. We discussed our acclimation, the girls and school, Philippe and work, me and my feelings about being back. We talked about the implications of this trade.
On our drive back to Raanana, the girls and I were quiet, each absorbed in our own thoughts. In need of groceries before the last of the month-long holidays, we stopped at the new and improved and oversized Supersol Deal in Kfar Saba. It’s so big they even sell electronics. On my way to check out, I stumbled upon the television aisle. One screen was bigger than the next, and all of them were broadcasting the same channel: live coverage of Gilad Shalit. One employee from the Green organic section stood alongside a shopper, watching, sometimes commenting to one another, while a young girl crouched to look at a lower screen. I took a photo, walked away to check out and head home.
Gilad Shalit might be a free man, but he will never be the same. Israel may have done something courageous, swapping one who was innocent for a thousand others who were not. But it’s neither simple nor straightforward.
While two thirds of the country was in favor of his return, the remaining one third was opposed. I am mixed up, in the middle. I am happy for Gilad and his family and trust that the Israeli government and army brokered a smart deal. But it is utterly frightening to think of the pay back and endless possibilities with former terrorists free in society again. I am scared of the what-ifs. If all these people who once committed atrocious crimes walk, what if they commit an act of terror—again?
Almost a week has passed and October 18th is all people are talking about. That day—that boy—has been embedded in our minds. We will always remember, I hope.