On October 18 we mark two years from the remarkable day when the world waited with great anticipation to see Gilad Shalit stride from captivity into freedom, back onto Israeli soil and reunited with his family.
Earlier this month, Shalit began his first term as a university student at the Interdisciplinary College Herzliya, studying economics and sustainability. Over the past year he has spoken to Jewish communities around the world, thanking them for their support while fundraising for Israel. Shalit has announced through his Facebook page that he has a girlfriend and that he is very happy.
But recall for a moment where we were just a few short months before Oct. 18, 2011.
On April 17, as the Shalit family was preparing to spend a fifth Passover with Gilad in Hamas captivity, headlines splashed throughout Israeli proclaiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had appointed Mossad official David Meidan as the government’s special representative for efforts to release Shalit, replacing Hagai Hadas.
I spoke to Meidan later that day. Shalit’s release seemed no closer to taking place than it did when he was abducted on June 25, 2006. I had never heard of Meidan and he had never heard of me. But I told him I had been in contact with senior Hamas officials about Shalit as early as six days after his abduction and on September 9, 2006, some two and a half months after he was taken, I got Hamas to deliver the first sign of life from Shalit – a hand written letter.
Despite this clear channel of communication, I was instructed by the Israeli official in charge of the case – who had been appointed 50 days after Schalit was abducted – to stand down and not interfere with negotiations.
Over the next five years, I never ceased my efforts to create a secret, direct back channel between Israel and Hamas. With Meidan, I was finally being listened to. Skilled and intelligent, he had the authority to take a chance on me and see if the back channel I proposed could produce results. When he was sufficiently convinced that this channel was a “live wire” he received authorization from Netanyahu to use it and to complete the deal to bring Shalit home. Months later, Gilad crossed the border from Gaza to Egypt and then into Israel’s waiting arms.
Roughly 80 percent of Israelis supported the deal that exchanged one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, some 400 of whom had killed Israelis. This is more than amazing. The toughest part of the negotiations was forcing Hamas to accept conditions that would minimize security risks to Israel by releasing so many convicted terrorists. This was done by removing a large number of names from the list, deporting others and sending West Bank prisoners to Gaza.
Right-wing extremists in Israel warned that because of the deal, hundreds of Israeli citizens would pay with their lives. Thank God that did not come true. In fact, not one of the released prisoners has engaged in violence against Israel. About 15 have been rearrested for parole violations and most of them have been re-released.
My role in saving the life of Gilad Shalit is something that I think about every single day. It is something I feel is a tremendous accomplishment, demonstrating that seemingly impossible things can happen when one has one’s mind and heart focused on a particular goal.
Gershon Baskin is an American-Israeli political and social activist. He founded the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, and the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), which he co-directed for twenty-four years. His new book, The Negotiator, is available online and at bookstores everywhere.