Thursday, 20 October 2011

Freedom of Speech

As Liam Fox limps to the back benches, reluctantly relieved of his ministerial majesty, and fragrant protestors shackle themselves to scaffolding in Essex, from which they will be forcibly liberated, one young man in Israel is learning to cope with freedom.
On Tuesday, Gilad Shalit felt the sun on his face for the first time in five years, having been released from solitary confinement at the hands of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist organisation. He was captured as a young Israeli soldier in 2006, and his freedom forms part of an historic prisoner exchange. Israel has released 477 Palestinians, with a further 550 to follow.
Now, I’m better with words than numbers, but I make it a ratio of 1:1027. Blackmail, bargain, or a price worth paying?  Mr Spock declared that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, but Monty Python taught us that “every sperm is sacred”, so now where do we stand?
We can be certain that the release of Gilad Shalit marks the removal of a potent diplomatic stumbling block to peace talks, but whether it will herald a new thaw in frosty Middle East manners is an entirely different matter. The deal was done between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hamas, who have controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, that stamps on the size 10s of President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of rivals Fatah, who control the West Bank. It’s a love triangle without much love, and with the interdependent trade and security concerns of other states tacked on, it isn’t even a triangle. That’s enough to elicit a foreign minister’s migraine, without even tackling the tricky topics of Jewish settlements, the blockade of Gaza, suicide bombers, and Tony Blair’s perma-tan.  As Middle East Peace Envoy he must be pulling his expensive hair out, hoping they all shake hands and smile for the cameras before he loses the one job even Gordon the Grumpy wouldn’t grab from under him. 
In all the political posturing and celebratory sabre-rattling, what struck me most was the humility of the man in the middle. Gilad Shalit was on national service when abducted, forcibly detained on a mandatory mission. In neither situation did he have any choice. Among his first acts of freedom was the choice to resist partisan rhetoric. He said he hoped his release would lead to peace between the two peoples, and that he would be happy for the remaining Palestinians held in Israeli prisons to be allowed to return to their families too. The man with arguably the most reason to denounce the talkers and terrorists on both sides said instead; “I hope this deal will lead to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support co-operation between both sides.” I’ll drink to that.

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