As Israel prepares for the return Tuesday of its soldier Gilad Shalit held hostage for five years by Palestinian militants, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the U.S. military also has an abducted soldier, held in captivity for more than two years.
In June 2009, Bowe Bergdahl was taken hostage in Afghanistan by the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. Though their exact demands are unclear, some reports suggest that for freedom, Bergdahl’s kidnappers are demanding a million dollar ransom and the release of Afghan prisoners in U.S. custody, most being held at Guantanamo Bay. They also want the release of Aafia Siddiqui - an alumna of the U.S. Most Wanted Terrorists list now in U.S. prison - and threaten to execute 25-year-old Bergdahl of she isn’t released.
It’s anyone’s guess if Sergeant Bergdahl (recently promoted in absence) is being held in Afghanistan or the tribal region of neighboring Pakistan. Since his captors have released five videos, it appears he is alive and that his captors have an interest in continuing to hold him in the hopes of a future deal.
In May, Bergdahl’s father Bob posted a video on YouTube appealing to the Pakistani military and Haqqani kidnappers to help secure his son’s release.
Bergdahl's father said:
"Our family is counting on your professional integrity and your honor to secure the safe return of our son…And we thank you. Our family knows the high price that has been paid by your men in the army and the frontier corps. We give our condolences and thanks to the families of those who have fallen for Pakistan…"
"We have been quiet in public, but we have not been quiet behind the scenes … Continue to be patient and kind to those around you. You are not forgotten."
The public plea was a departure from the virtual silence Bergdahl’s parents have maintained since their son’s abduction. The AP reported:
The Bergdahls, who live in a home outside of Hailey [Idaho] near the tourist resort of Sun Valley, have largely shunned media attention following their son's capture. Last year, Bowe Bergdahl's mother, Jani Bergdahl, attended an elementary school ceremony after students wrote President Barack Obama urging him to help bring about the captive's release.
The military has been trying to locate Bergdahl and offered a $25,000 reward for his safe return. Some supporters online ask: if the U.S. could find Osama bin Laden, why can’t they find Bergdahl?
In contrast with Bergdahl's abduction, almost from the moment Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in 2006, his family and neighbors spearheaded a massive public diplomacy campaign – later joined by large swaths of the Israeli public - to secure his release.
Here are some of the methods they employed in what the Free Gilad website described as the “battle” for his freedom, aimed at “creating pressure on decision makers to promote the release agreement”:
They constructed a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to create a constant reminder of Shalit’s absence. They met with Israeli cabinet and international officials. Because Shalit is a dual citizen of Israel and France, the family recruited the support of French diplomats, even President Nicolas Sarkozy. Supporters once displayed cardboard cutouts of Shalit in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
One memorable ad campaign showed the faces of Israelis holding up a newspaper headlined “We Are All Gilad Shalit” imitating Gilad’s hostage video where he’s holding an Arabic newspaper.
Three songs were written about Shalit by pop superstars Eyal Golan, Aviv Geffen and Boaz Sharabi. In June 2010, more than 200,000 Israelis joined the Shalit parents in a 125-mile cross-country trek from their home in northern Israel south to the protest tent in Jerusalem.
One indication of the intimacy Israelis feel with the struggle – and the success of the family’s public diplomacy campaign: police this weekend erected barricades outside entrances to the small village of Mitzpe Hila where the Shalits live to keep out well-wishers and effort a quiet homecoming for Gilad (as much as they can considering hundreds of journalists are already parked outside the country home).
This being the Sukkot holiday week, Israeli news channels have shown vacationing Israelis stopping by, hoping to express their congratulations to parents Aviva and Noam.
As successful as the PR push has been, there’s no escaping the fact that the family had one goal in mind: convincing the government to agree to a prisoner exchange deal with the Hamas terror organization running Gaza. Israel struck what officials called a painful deal with Hamas: Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli prison. Among them, perpetrators of some of the most vicious terrorist attacks the country has known, including:
Walid Anajas, who was convicted for his involvement in the bombing of the Moment Cafe in Jerusalem in 2002. Twelve civilians were murdered and 54 injured in the attack.
Also on the list is Nasser Yataima, convicted of planning the 2002 Passover Seder suicide-bomb attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which 30 civilians were killed and 140 were wounded.
Fadi Muhammad al-Jabaa, sentenced to 18 life sentences for plotting the suicide bomb attack on a Haifa bus in 2003, in which 17 passengers were murdered, will be released and deported to Gaza. The list includes Maedh Abu Sharakh, also convicted of plotting the Haifa bus bombing.
Tamimi Ahlam, the Palestinian female Hamas terrorist convicted of aiding and abetting the suicide bomber who murdered 15 civilians and injured 140 in the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria bombing in the capital will be deported to her native Jordan.
Another soon-to-be released prisoner is Abd al-Aziz Salaha, who in 2001 took part in the murder of two IDF soldiers who mistakenly drove into Ramallah. Salaha was caught on camera holding out hands covered in blood after beating one of the soldiers to death. He held his hands out of a Ramallah police station where the soldiers were killed, to a frenzied Palestinian crowd that gathered outside.
For Israelis, Salaha’s blood soaked hands has become the iconic picture of the brutality of Palestinian terrorism.
In light of what one journalist described as the five year national “psycho drama,” you’d be hard pressed to find an Israeli who hasn’t heard of Gilad Shalit, considered the nation’s son. On the other hand, most Americans have probably never heard of Bergdahl outside of Idaho - where yellow ribbons tied around trees decorate the streets - which prompted Dan McGinnis to post a critique on Yahoo in July:
It's great that his hometown is showing their support and preserving his memory until he returns, but it's time for the rest of the country to do the same. The Idaho congressional delegation released a statement this week that said Bergdahl remains a top priority for U.S. military and intelligence officials. But there are 49 more congressional delegations that could have issued the same statement if there was enough national attention drawn to his plight.
The U.S. and our allies should be using every resource at our disposal to locate and extract him from the hands of his captors. We need a grassroots effort sweeping the nation. We need more yellow ribbons. We need more action.
National attention yes, but to what end? Do Americans want the government to negotiate with terrorists? Would the U.S. even consider releasing Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl? Or launch a risky rescue mission that could endanger more soldiers? The Israeli news site Arutz Sheva noted the irony of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s phone call last week to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the Gilad Shalit deal, which her own nation never would have made. Observers say Clinton's sentiments are particularly surprising given the enduring and iron-clan policy of the United States against negotiating with terrorists, instead preferring to mount rescue operations where viable, or to leave captured citizens in captivity.
The painful price Israel paid to secure Shalit’s release is being fiercely debated. Some lawmakers now want to inoculate the government from future public pressure to cave to terrorist demands, including legislating against these kind of terrorist releases. To prevent a future 1-soldier-for-1,027-prisoner swap, one former Mossad agent suggests outlawing any deals with terrorists beyond a one-to-one ratio.
A cabinet member is pushing for the death penalty for the murderers of the Fogel family, stabbed to death in their home, including three-month-old Hadas killed in her crib. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is worried their killers could be included in a future exchange deal.
And this chilling report on Israel’s Channel 2 News Sunday night shows how Israeli soldiers have been instructed on the “Hannibal protocol” to prevent being kidnapped in the first place by blowing themselves up:
The commander instructs his troops:
"The strategic weapon, the "Judgment Day Weapon" that Hamas wants to acquire, is to capture a soldier. But no soldier in Battalion 51 will be kidnapped at any price. At any price. Under any condition. Even if it means that he blows himself with his own grenade together with those trying to capture him. Also even if it means that now his unit has to fire a barrage at the car that they are trying to take him away in."
Israelis are thrilled to be welcoming home the nation’s son after five long years. At the same time, concern is rife about which innocent victims could pay the future price of putting a mass of convicted terrorists back on the streets.