This is a guest post from Jonathan Sacerdoti.
Can you remember your 23rd birthday? How did you celebrate? What presents did you receive? Last Friday was Gilad Shalit’s 23rd birthday, though I’m not even sure he knew it. Gilad has been held captive by Hamas in unknown conditions since he was kidnapped over three years ago from Israeli territory. He is assumed to be alive, but there has been little public evidence either way.
I’m not normally in the habit of standing on street corners trying to talk to passers-by, but on Friday I joined others in London who wanted to mark Gilad’s birthday and raise awareness of his plight. We handed out flyers explaining his situation, and offered birthday cake to the busy Londoners rushing up and down the streets near Moorgate tube station during their lunch breaks. However, I’m sure it didn’t change anything for Gilad, wherever he is.
There’s a reason we feel helpless when we think about Gilad Shalit. It’s because we are. There’s nothing you or I can do that could make a difference; if only there were. It was almost pathetic watching the efforts people around the world made to ‘do something’ on Friday. A special #GiladShalit hashtag made it into Twitter’s trending topics, and thousands of concerned people sent emails, signed petitions and said prayers calling for Gilad’s release. But those who control his life now don’t care at all about any of these things. They don’t care about international law, or the Geneva convention, or human rights, or basic human decency. Nothing you or I say or do will make them behave differently. They’ve made that clear.
So why were we there, handing out cake? Maybe it was to let people know who Gilad is – many Londoners we met had never even heard of him. Maybe it was to mark his birthday publicly, knowing that he could not. Maybe it was in the hope that increased awareness would raise the pressure on our government and others to intervene however they can. Maybe we hoped to show those around us just what sort of enemies Israel has to deal with in any potential negotiations, ‘peace talks’, or even wars. Or maybe it just helped us feel we were doing something in the face of the unimaginable horrors that must be Gilad’s everyday life.
Prisoners of war are entitled to visits from the International Red Cross, to ensure their health and human rights are being protected, and they must be allowed regular and unconditional contact with their families. Yet Gilad has been granted neither (the three letters and one voice recording released very early on during his imprisonment cannot be counted as regular).
After a couple of hours spreading the word on the streets of London, four of us went on to meet Michael A Meyer, OBE, the Head of International Law at the British Red Cross. I told him that we wanted the Red Cross to try harder to visit Gilad. While he assured us that we were “pushing at an open door”, he and we knew that his good intentions and ours made no difference at all to Gilad. I asked him why the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] wasn’t trying harder, and why they continue to provide humanitarian aid to the very people who deny Gilad his human rights. But despite the “direct and indirect contact” Mr Meyer said the ICRC has with Hamas, it seems that everything they have tried has been as fruitless as our birthday cake and flyer distribution had been earlier that day.
Before we left the Red Cross offices, we presented Mr Meyer with a cake for him and his colleagues to enjoy, asking him to remind them all that it was for Gilad’s birthday. Perhaps these little reminders will keep Gilad’s plight in their consciousness, encouraging them to do more for him until he is treated fairly, and ultimately released back to his family, his people and his country. We expressed our hope that this will be the last time Gilad is not free to celebrate his birthday at home. “The British Red Cross and the ICRC hope that, too”, said Mayer.
If only all of that hope could help Gilad.