The deal to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners is a moment of liberation not only for them and their families but for all residents of Israel and the Gaza Strip. The deal also holds the possibility of release from the concept that has shaped Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip ever since Gilad Shalit was captured five and a half years ago – the concept of closure.
In the time that has passed since Shalit’s capture, no one, not a single minister, security official, senior commentator or serious researcher, either on the left or the right, has argued that the closure helped Israel’s fight against Hamas and the efforts to free Shalit. In the past year, following the flotilla incident, consensus that this policy damages Israel both politically and in terms of security has only grown. The policy was meant to weaken Hamas, but instead it was strengthened. It was meant to isolate Gaza, but it was Israel that ended up isolated.
Last summer, the Israeli government decided (Hebrew) to remove what Prime Minister Netanyahu termed the “civilian closure” based on the understanding that it undermined the “security closure”. However, the “easing” of the closure has proceeded slowly – with words more than it has with deeds, with much hesitation and with many excuses – as if this wasn’t a goal the government itself had defined as an Israeli interest. A major part of the reason for this was Gilad Shalit’s continued captivity. Even Israeli policy makers who thought the closure should be lifted were held prisoner by the public’s anger and the security establishment’s frustrations. According to the formula that the public had come to accept, any policy or action that benefited Gaza’s residents (such as respecting their right to education – PDF) was a concession to Hamas, or worse still, it meant giving up on Shalit.
Throughout these years, Gisha has spoken to senior security, financial and political figures who agreed that the closure should be lifted but refused to say anything publicly “as long as Gilad is still in captivity”. And so, on top of the price Israeli society paid for one of its sons being held in captivity was the price paid for a damaging policy its leaders failed to overturn. The price paid by Gaza’s residents has of course been, and continues to be, very heavy and painful.
Now, with the imminent release of Gilad Shalit and Palestinian prisoners, we hope the moment of release from this policy has also come – a moment when official statements about the need to distinguish between Gaza’s civilian population and those who engage in violence against Israel are put into practice. From this moment on, the government would be able to say proudly and openly that it is finally breaking away from the concept it inherited from its predecessor and moving forward, without hesitation or excuses, to achieve its goal and remove the civilian closure. All that it needs to do is allow goods out of Gaza, allow people to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and remove the restrictions on bringing building materials into the Strip – all while safeguarding legitimate security interests.