Opinion: The Face of Israel

When the thousands of delegates, journalists and observers drive to the United Nations this September for the General Assembly, I’d like to suggest that on their way they swing by the intersection of 10th Avenue and 35th Street.

I know it’s not exactly on the way. In fact, it’s almost directly across the island, as the U.N. is at 46th and First. But if they can take that detour, they’ll see a billboard that was just put up, featuring the face of Gilad Shalit.

“I was kidnapped by Hamas on June 25, 2006,” the billboard’s text reads.  “I have been held hostage for 1,819 days and counting. This summer I will turn 25 years old.  Where did you spend your birthday this year?” Then it ends with the words  “Free Gilad Shalit.”

The U.N. delegates will be on their way to the General Assembly, where they are expected to vote on a motion for Palestinian statehood. Although Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have suspended their unity agreement, there is every likelihood that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will continue reconciliation talks after a pro-statehood vote. After all, it would be hard to conceive of a Palestinian state without Gaza.

Perhaps seeing the billboard would prompt the U.N. delegates to ask themselves this question: Does the U.N., created to establish international peace and stability, really want to be an accessory to kidnapping?

The U.N.’s membership includes states that commit all sorts of atrocities. Some of them, like Sudan, sat on the now defunct Commission on Human Rights, even while engaging in genocide. Saudi Arabia is a current member of the Human Rights Council, no doubt because Saudi Arabia is expert at identifying human rights, in order to crush them.

But the case of Palestine is different, because here the U.N. has leverage. It can dangle the carrot of statehood in front of the Palestinians. It can simply ask the Palestinians which they’d rather have, Gilad Shalit, or recognition as a state. Or, at the very least, its members might read the U.N.’s own charter.

“Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations,” the U.N. rules read.

These obligations include the duty to resolve disputes using peaceful means —“by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”

Kidnapping is not on the list, not to mention any of the other tactics Hamas has far from renounced — lobbing rockets at civilians, sending suicide bombers into Israel, provoking war.

Granted, I’m under no illusions that the U.N. will abide by its own charter. Its record on Israel is largely antagonistic. It very may well decide to forgive Hamas and forget Shalit.

But for the Jewish world swept up in the debate over Palestinian statehood, that is not an option.

As our cover story this week discusses, last week was the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture. As that date came and went, I took the occasion to speak with Gal Sitty, the 28-year-old Studio City resident who created the billboard campaign for Shalit.  I asked him why he did it.

“It’s to keep the pressure on officials, at the International Red Cross, at the U.N.,  to do more,” Sitty said. “The Red Cross still hasn’t been allowed to see him. Putting up this billboard is something I can do.”

Sitty is the son of Israeli immigrants.  He attended Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley, then UCLA, then received advanced degrees in public policy. 

“In five years, I’ve had two master’s degrees and many different jobs,” he said. “Gilad hasn’t been able to move forward with his life at all. That’s something young people can very much relate to.”

Sitty used a new online site, epicstep.com, to crowdsource the $10,000 he needed to mount his billboard where an estimated 1.2 million people per month will see it. It took him just 30 days to get contributions from 181 people. The contributions came from all over the world, including Argentina and Indonesia.

Indeed, many people outside Israel have taken up Shalit’s cause in a big way. The organization StandWithUs launched an international Free Gilad petition drive and has already gathered more than 30,000 signatures, and there are numerous blogs, Facebook groups and other efforts dedicated to the soldier. It is Shalit’s terrible fate to have become the new face of Israel.

It is a face that says something critical about the nature of Israel, as well as the nature of its worst enemies and those who acquiesce to those enemies’ tactics. 

The kidnapping has stirred up debate in Israel — everything stirs up debate in Israel — over the price the government should pay to free one soldier, over whether public pressure actually strengthens Hamas’ bargaining position. 

But it also reveals the nation’s deep, unified concern over the fate of an individual. While many of Israel’s neighbors are attacking and imprisoning their own citizens en masse, Israel and its supporters are focused on protecting even one.

If Hamas ever wanted to find a way to ennoble Israel and its people in the eyes of the world — and, at the same time, to lower itself — it could not have chosen better than Gilad Shalit.