Memoir highlights unlikely role in Gilad Shalit saga

Less than one year before Gilad Shalit’s 2006 abduction-heard-round-the-world, another, less infamous tragedy set events in motion that ultimately aided in the Israeli soldier’s release.

In September 2005, a relative of Gershon Baskin, founder and then-co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), was kidnapped during a business trip in the West Bank. Despite Baskin’s efforts to track him down using his Palestinian contacts, the family member turned up dead six days later. 

On the day of the funeral, Baskin vowed that he would save the next person who was kidnapped. 

“I stood over his grave not only feeling terrible because my wife’s first cousin had been murdered, but because the family asked me to do something. I’d been working with Palestinians for two decades, and I couldn’t save his life,” Baskin told a small crowd at the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) on Nov. 21. “And I swore to myself that night if ever again I was in a situation where someone approached me and asked me to help save a human life, I would do everything humanly possible.” 

Since 1988, Baskin has been working to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians through the IPCRI, a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think tank. In summer 2006, contacts from his profession came in handy — and he got his chance to live up to the promise he made to himself — when then-19-year-old Shalit was kidnapped by militants from the Gaza Strip.

Baskin had been attempting to organize dialogues between academics from Israeli universities and academics from Islamic University of Gaza, with which Hamas leaders were affiliated, and found himself in a position to try and help Shalit.

From successfully obtaining a sign of life of Shalit in the form of a personal handwritten letter, to convincing the soldier’s parents to contact the head of Hamas in Damascus, to venturing precariously into the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders in person, Baskin described his quest to save Shalit as all-in. 

As explained in his recently released book recounting his efforts, “The Negotiator,” Baskin, acting in an unofficial capacity — after years of trying to convince the Israeli government to let him do so — established secret, back-channel negotiations with Shalit’s kidnappers in the Islamist group Hamas. This helped pave the way for the deal that won the soldier his freedom, Baskin said. After five years of captivity, Shalit was released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians who were being held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.

That’s not to say he didn’t irritate many along the way, even in Israel. Several investigators, including official appointees of the Israeli prime minister’s office, were grateful for Baskin’s commitment but asked him to stay out of the case. Still, his dissatisfaction with how long it was taking to rescue the young boy in captivity kept him motivated, he said.

While Baskin’s presentation left out some of the juicer details — he was there to move copies of his new book, after all — there was another reason for his appearance, according to PJTC Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, who extended the invitation to Baskin.

“It was one person who established a relationship and who built trust and who was not willing to give up, and that to me is kind of a metaphor for how we are going to bring peace in the world … one person at a time.”