TORONTO — A new initiative launched last week by U.S. politicians and supporters of the father of Gilad Schalit is the latest attempt to gain the release of the captured Israeli soldier by asking western governments to link promised aid to Gaza with Schalit’s freedom.
An emotional request by Gilad’s father, Noam Schalit, posted recently on Aish.com’s “Freedom for Gilad” website (dogood.aish.com/gilad), the elder Schalit asks viewers to do “something to help” bring Gilad home.
“Imagine he was your son or brother,” Schalit beseeches. “You would do whatever you can.”
The Aish website contains a petition calling on the American public to support the initiative. It reads: “We, the undersigned, call on the United States government to make its $300-million humanitarian aid pledge to the people of Gaza conditional upon the Hamas leadership releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held in captivity for over 1,000 days.”
Gilad Schalit has been in captivity for nearly three years, after being kidnapped on June 25, 2006, by Hamas operatives in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to The CJN last Friday from his home in Israel, Noam indicated the ongoing fight to reclaim his son was exacting a toll.
“I’m not so well,” he said, adding “It’s hard.”
He said while he appreciates the sentiment behind the new initiative, it was not his idea and said it may be a waste of energy by U.S. and western politicians.
The Schalit petition comes as an outgrowth of calls by two Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, who last week called for the conditions to be placed on the promised U.S. aid to Gaza.
In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House of Representatives appropriations committee, representatives Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said that it’s “essential that we not simply write a ‘blank cheque’ for the Gaza-based Palestinians to continue” their missile attacks on Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that none of the $300 million in aid – part of an overall $900-million aid package for the Palestinians – will go to Hamas. The Gaza assistance is designated to meet humanitarian needs following the Israeli military operation in December and January.
Noam Schalit, who visited Washington two weeks ago and met with members of the U.S. Congress and other politicians, said he did so with the hope that the new Obama administration’s policies and outlook on the Middle East may now provide a better “window of opportunity” to get his son back.
He said he asked U.S. officials to make his son’s situation part of their policy in the Middle East. But the linkage of foreign monetary aid to his son’s release was not part of his agenda.
“There are people who take [my cause] and use it to help. But it was not from me. In Washington, I tried to convey the message that U.S. money won’t be any good, because Israel won’t transfer construction [payments] to Gaza unless the swap deal for Gilad will be carried out,” Noam said.
He added: “I tried to [explain] that the crisis of Gilad is a bottleneck [for negotiations with Gaza and the West], and if the bottleneck isn’t opened, nothing can happen.”
Earlier this year, Canada pledged nearly $4 million in aid to Gaza to be administered by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which will split the funds between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At the time, CIDA added that none of the funding would go to Hamas, which Ottawa considers a terrorist organization, but the agency said it was ready to inject more financial support, if necessary, as the humanitarian situation in Gaza develops.
Dimitri Soudas, press secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The CJN last Friday that Canada had, as yet, “not provided reconstruction aid to Gaza” citing concerns about the aid falling into Hamas’ hands.
Soudas said the government “condemns” Hamas’ kidnapping of Schalit and has “repeatedly called for [his] immediate release… so that he can return to loved ones.”
He said he didn’t know whether Harper had heard about or was considering the initiative to tie aid to Gaza to Schalit’s release.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Canada-Israel Committee, said that while such an effort might seem useful, there is an “inherent flaw” in its logic and his organization won’t ask Ottawa to adopt the idea.
“The Canadian government has withdrawn from funding projects that have any connection to Hamas. Therefore, there is no money to ‘condition’ to Schalit’s release,” Fogel told The CJN.
He added: “Even if one were to make such a demand of the [Palestinian Authority] – i.e., no funding unless they get Hamas to release Schalit – it would get no traction, since the PA itself has dysfunctional relations with Hamas. So, while at first blush it appears an attractive approach, in practice, at least as it relates to Canada, the suggestion is not viable.”
Noam Schalit said he had not yet met with the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he said he was slated to meet with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on May 13.
“I’m waiting for [Netanyahu] to learn all the details from the former administration… to consider his policy and attitude to this crisis. Now, I have hope. But I don’t want to develop high expectations. But [with a] new administration, sure there may be new windows of opportunity,” Noam said.
On Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres invited the elder Schalit to meet with Pope Benedict XVI at Peres’ residence as part of the pontiff’s tour of the Holy Land.
“The office of the president attaches great importance to the meeting between the Pope and the Schalit family, as the Pope represents over one billion Catholic believers worldwide… and his assistance can be a great asset in the struggle to bring Gilad home,” read a statement from Peres’ office.
Asked what part Canada might play in helping return Gilad home, Noam Schalit said he was unaware of Canadian policy on the matter and that he was focusing all his efforts on speaking with only “the major players” in the Middle East.
He didn’t rule out a potential visit to Canada.
“I was invited [to visit Canada] by the Jewish community in Toronto and Montreal but couldn’t visit due to [a busy] schedule. But maybe if I see it’s somewhere I can benefit, I’ll consider [it],” he said, sounding weary.
With files from JTA