Seen on a wall along Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, 2006
                             photo by Kerry Sheridan
Israelis share anguish over soldier but split over action
by Kerry Sheridan
July 2, 2006
JERUSALEM - Israel is united in anguish for a teenage soldier captured by Palestinian militants but one week into the crisis people are divided about how far the government should go to secure his release.
"If he were my son, I would want the government to do everything to bring him home safely," said Eli, a 58-year-old taxi driver. "After, Israel can do anything she wants. Go into Gaza and clear the place."
In a country where military service is mandatory for young men and women, Eli said he, like most of his passengers, can relate personally to the ordeal of the family of 19-year-old Gilad Shalit.
"Everybody feels close to him," he said. "He is like a member of my family, this soldier, because I have children in the army. We hope they do not kill him."
But the soldier's capture, which prompted Israeli tanks to roll back into the Gaza Strip last week only 10 months after pulling out of the Palestinian territory, has also produced an increasing split in Israeli public opinion.
A poll conducted on Friday showed that despite Israelis' emotional connection to the soldier, a surprising number do not agree with the government position of refusing to negotiate with militants.
Fifty-eight percent favored releasing Palestinian prisoners, as militants have demanded, should it save the soldier from death, according to the survey published by the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.
Fifty-four percent said Israel should negotiate over the soldier, while only 43 percent urged the opposite -- military action.
Even terminology has become a source of dispute. On a radio call-in show over the weekend, Israelis debated whether to use the words "kidnapped" or "captured" when speaking about the conscript.
During war, soldiers are "captured," some argued, while others preferred the term "kidnapping," instead seeing Shalit as an innocent victim.
"If we had done the same, kidnapped some Palestinian, the world would go after us and make us give him back," said Chaya, a 22-year-old student as she waited for her bus in Jerusalem.
"If Mexico fired rockets at America, everyone would go crazy. But when it happens here, they expect us to do nothing," she said, a frown descending over her forehead.
"They should do whatever they need to do to get him back."
And if he is killed in the process?
"It won't be the first time," she said.
Her words are rooted in truth: all nine Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian militants in the past have lost their lives.
"He is the son of everyone, and at the same time he is not the son of anyone," said Israeli mother-of-two Joelle who has one daughter in the army.
The soldier's capture raised acute emotions among Israelis because he has highlighted a weakness despite the country's military might, said academic Yossi Klein Halevi.
"When we Israeli parents send our children to the army to, in effect, protect us, we feel a reciprocal duty to protect them, especially when they are rendered helpless," said Halevi, a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center.
"That helplessness touches a deeper Jewish trauma that Zionism promised to remedy by empowering the Jews. Gilad's capture reminds us of our own helplessness," said Halevi, a self-described "hardliner" who advocates systematic targeting of the Hamas leadership.
But Dov, a 45-year-old taxi driver, disagreed.
"You cannot finish the Palestinians. They will bring a new Hamas," said the Tunisian-born Jew.
Military action "is not good for the Palestinians. The people should not be punished. We must keep the people safe and not make them hate Israel," he said.
Dean, a 19-year-old soldier waiting for a ride on a busy Jerusalem street with his M-16 slung over his shoulder, barely nodded when asked if he could relate to Shalit because they are the same age.
"It is difficult for his family and the whole country," he said, on the same morning that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he had ordered the military to use "all its power" against "terrorists" in order to secure Shalit's release.
"The government knows what to do," Dean said. "The Israeli people trust in the government."
I traveled on assignment to Jerusalem and Gaza twice in 2006, first in February and again shortly after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants, prompting fresh Israel military incursions in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.