The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Shalit from Hamas

Seeking Peace Among the Warriors

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The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit is the story of Gershon Baskin, who decided to act on his own, without government support, to free Schalit. Thus begins the extraordinary tale of one man and how his contacts on all sides of the bitter ideological-political divide eventually helped free the soldier.

Murray Polner

Murray Polner

It all began in June 2006 when a nineteen-year- old Israeli army conscript, Gilad Schalit, was kidnapped by Hamas loyalists — “rogue groups,” Gershon Baskin calls them in the continuing tit- for-tat violence between Israeli occupiers and occupied Palestinians. The Israelis have impris- oned thousands of Palestinians, some of whom committed hei- nous crimes and many others whose nonviolent challenges to their subjugators landed them in a prison cell, much to the dismay of their families and support- ers. Schalit was only one Israeli Jew, but in Israel his capture was taken personally. To set the stage, Baskin tells us that one year ear- lier, his wife’s cousin was murdered in Ramallah by a Hamas member.

Enter Baskin, an American-Israeli, who has spent virtually his entire professional life in Israel working with other peaceniks for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, co-founding, with a Palestinian ally, a public-policy think tank, and writing a column called “Encountering Peace” in the Jerusalem Post.

When he first heard of Schalit’s abduction he had what can best be described as a revelation. He possessed one thing Israel’s spymasters and officials didn’t have, namely extensive contacts with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, which he developed over the years in his peace work. Seated on the shores of the Dead Sea in neighboring Jordan, learning of the abduction, he reflected on the kidnapping’s possible consequences, asking himself,

“How many innocent Israelis and Palestinians would be killed as a result of this attack”?

— retaliation being the name of the game.

Gilad Schalit and Gershon Baskin

Gilad Schalit and Gershon Baskin

In The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit From Hamas (Toby Press), he tells us that he decided to act on his own, without government support, to free Schalit. Thus begins the extraordinary tale of one man and how his contacts on all sides of the bitter ideological-political divide eventually helped free the soldier. “I had no idea how the capture of Gilad Schalit would change my life and how, over the next five years and four months, his life and mine would intersect.”

In the end, Baskin’s absorbing and dramatic book is a first-person story of an in- defatigable lone-wolf mediator and negotiator who, against all odds, managed to work with Israelis, West Bank Palestin- ians and above all, Hamas, the confrontational, passionately anti-Israel group once supported by Israel to counter the PLO and now seemingly unapproachable.

His first step was to contact Dana Olmert, the dovish daughter of Israel’s hawkish former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Dana Olmert had recently participated in a demonstration against the IDF chief of staff whose air force had bombed the home of a Hamas military man, killing his family and injuring, Baskin claims, fifty to a hundred more people. When questioned by tough-minded Israeli reporters about harming civilians, the general said he had no regrets. Baskin sent Dana Olmert an e- mail congratulating her for her humane principles though she was never able to persuade her father to take an active role in res- cuing Schalit. Apparently, both the kidnappers and murderers of Baskin’s wife’s cousin felt the same about their victims.

Baskin then turned to people he knew or worked with, as well as some he had never met but might be helpful. At a conference in Madrid marking the Oslo process, once a serious effort to work out a deal with Palestinians and Syrians, he found himself in a hotel elevator with two Syrian officials and Israeli reporter Akiva Eldar. Eldar tried to shake hands with one of them, a legal advisor to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, who refused to acknowledge Eldar. Baskin knew that Syria provided Hamas a sanctuary and was therefore a possible link to Schalit’s captors, so he pre- vailed on a Palestinian friend to have the Syrian meet him in a secluded section of the hotel. They did, Baskin talked, but all the Syrian said was “OK” and was never heard from again.

Deeply frustrated, back and forth he went, to Schalit’s parents, initially advising them to disregard the Israeli prime minister and bureaucrats. (Much later Schalit’s parents protested publicly, setting up a tent at Passover in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home.) Slowly, very slowly, Baskin developed connections with some moderate (at least in Baskin’s view) Hamas officials in Gaza. In one instance, one Hamas contact asked him to intercede with the Israeli air force to stay an attack because a child injured in the bombing needed to be escorted to the hospital without being strafed. The request, which Baskin passed along, was granted.

In time, Baskin was assisted greatly by two men: the Israeli David Meidan, one-time head of Tevel, a Mossad office, who came with Netanyahu’s blessing, and Dr. Ghani Hamid, a spokesman and advisor to Gaza’s prime minister, and who in- sisted on speaking with Baskin in Hebrew. Hamid proved to be extremely helpful, and Baskin praises him as “the man who made it [the release of Schalit] happen.” An honest and insightful interview with Hamid, reprinted in the book, is a rare and peaceful journalistic exchange in the ongoing civil war.

The Negotiator is replete with back channel exchanges, secret meetings, frenetic messages and persistent phone calls. “It was all so difficult and horribly maddening,” Baskin confesses. “I kept telling myself not to give up [and] I vowed not to give up until Gilad was home.” Finally, with Egyptians acting as a go-between, a deal was consummated. “Sworn enemies had managed to meet in the middle,” writes Baskin, as the final list of Palestin- ian prisoners to be released in return was agreed upon. David Meidan told Baskin that without him the swap could never have been completed. Everyone — Gilad Schalit and a large number of Palestinians — went home.

It appears Baskin knows nothing about the fate of the Palestinians but he has followed Schalit, who spent years hidden underground but was never abused, and was even given a television and allowed to watch sporting events with his captors. Early on he was offered his freedom provided he converted to Islam and married a Muslim woman. When he reached home, observers said he seemed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disor- der, but now travels abroad and is interested in sports writing, having once covered the NBA.

But what of ordinary Israelis whose family members had been killed or maimed by the freed prisoners? The widow of his wife’s murdered cousin was furious with Baskin, seething and weeping because four of the six men who killed her husband had been freed — “The man who had butchered her husband with his own hands,” Baskin notes, not without remorse but also without apology. The scene was most recently repeated in October 2013, when twenty-six Palestinian prisoners, all of whom were jailed for killing Israeli civilians, were released, presumably in a trade allowing the construction of some fifteen hundred new apartments on the West Bank, and also to ease Americans concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The new deal brought the same cries of Israeli anguish as the earlier one, horrified by the killings of family members. One grieving relative asked, on Ynet, the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot’s blog, why. “For what? One thousand houses?” A Mc- Clatchy report about the latest release describes a woman, whose father was stabbed to death in 1991, crying out

“The justice system did no justice. They stuck one last knife in our back.”

Still, ordinary Palestinians are victims too. Driven out of their homes in 1948 and their properties on the West Bank taken by Jewish settlers, mutual fears and hatreds continue. In Baskin’s interview, Ghazi Hamid explains the Palestinian side: “We are still under occupation, we have no borders, we have no sovereignty, and we have nothing. I think Israel has to end the occupation over us and get out. After that you can talk about peace.”

All the same, echoing Israelis like Baskin, Mahmoud Damouni, the brother of Ahmad, one of the freed prisoners, who was convicted of killing an army reservist and civilian in 1990, told Israel Radio in Hebrew,

“Enough, we were killed and you were killed. Every house in Gaza and the West Bank has a pris- oner, someone who was killed…and there are many such Jewish houses. And I say to the two sides, enough.”

So the argument goes on endlessly, with far too many on both sides persuaded of the absolute justice of their case. Ger- shon Baskin, the eternal peacemaker, believes there are prag- matists on both sides and he remains hopeful that Israelis and Palestinians can reach a peace agreement someday. How? Only by negotiating “via a secret direct back channel. So I continue my efforts.”

Murray Polner is a book review editor for HNN.org and was editor of Present Tense, published by the American Jewish Committee from 1973-90. He wrote Rabbi: The American Experience; co-edited (with Stefan Merken) Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition, as well as No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and, with Jim O’Grady, Disarmed & Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. His most recent book is We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing From 1812 to Now, co-authored with Thomas Woods.