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No-win situation

I had asked Shalit if he wanted to speak to me and he gave his consent. I was simply doing my job as a journalist.

By Shahira Amin

Shahira Amin
Shahira Amin

This week marked the anniversary of the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had spent five years in captivity after being abducted by Hamas in an ambush on an Israeli checkpoint. It’s also been a year since my much-publicised interview with Gilad Shalit, one that stirred a great deal of controversy and drew sharp criticism from Israelis and Egyptians alike.

The exclusive interview broadcast on Egyptian state television and picked up by TV stations around the world, was recorded shortly after Shalit’s release in the no man’s land between the Egyptian border town of Rafah in North Sinai and Gaza. It lasted only eight minutes. Shalit’s release was part of a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces brokered prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel . Under the deal, described by analysts as “historic”, 1,026 Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails were to be released in exchange for the release of the one Israeli soldier.

When the interview was broadcast minutes after Shalit was set free, Israelis expressed shock and anger, accusing me of prolonging his suffering and delaying his return home. His family and loved ones were counting the seconds to see him, they said, and I had “traumatised him by forcing him to give me the interview.” I received hate-mail by the hundreds from his Israeli supporters who described me as “brutal and inhumane.” I was meanwhile criticised by some Egyptian media and accused of being “pro-normalisation.”

From the onset, I had realised that this was a no-win situation. I decided however to respond to the criticism, knowing full well that no matter what I said, I would only further provoke the ire of one side or the other. After all, the existing animosity felt by both Egyptians and Israelis towards each other stems from decades of hatred and mistrust between the two peoples. Despite the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel more than thirty years ago, there’s been little people to people contact since, save for a few Israeli tourists visiting the Sinai and who are often compelled to hide their identity from their local hosts for fear of facing hostility. The 2004 simultaneous bomb attacks in Taba and Ras Shitan campsites in Nuweiba frequented by Israeli tourists that killed 34 people including 12 Israeli vacationers and wounded scores of others, serve as a haunting reminder of the deep-rooted hatred harboured by some extremists towards their Israeli neighbours.

The negative sentiment isn’t just limited to militants who in recent months have attempted several border attacks. It also extends to Egyptian laymen and political forces who are currently demanding that Egyptian authorities revisit the Camp David accord to allow for the deployment of additional troops to the Sinai. The peace agreement signed by the two countries in 1979 restricts the number of troops that can be stationed in the Sinai peninsula. Scenes of repeated Israeli bombardments of Gaza shown on Egyptian Television and the tight siege imposed by Israel on the enclave’s 1.5 million-strong Gaza population have further fuelled the simmering tensions.

Days before my interview with Shalit, hundreds of Egyptian activists had stormed the Israeli embassy building in Cairo, pulling down the Israeli flag and calling for the immediate dismissal of the Israeli ambassador. The outburst of anger was sparked by the death of five Egyptian security guards in Sinai for which the activists blamed Israel. Israel meanwhile has been apprehensive since the rise of Islamists to power, expressing fears that the peace treaty was at risk of being revoked after the toppling of Mubarak, described by the Israeli government as a “staunch ally.” It was in this tension-ridden atmosphere that the interview was conducted and I would have been a fool not to foresee a vicious backlash coming.

I finally decided to interview Shalit for the very reasons I mention above. It was not because I could not resist “the temptation of another scoop” as one Israeli critic claimed. I had already earned the respect of the international community by quitting my job as deputy head of state run Nile TV at the height of last year’s mass uprising in protest at state TV’s coverage of the protests in Tahrir, a move that’s been hailed as “a heroic act of bravery” by some rights advocates. Moreover, I have since won several international awards for “my defence of human rights” including the prestigious Homes of the Year Award from Sweden and the Juan Anguita Parrado Award from Spain in 2011. My sole motive for doing the interview was the advancement of peace through dialogue. It is my conviction that dialogue can help dispel fear, hatred and mistrust.

I have experienced first-hand the ravages of war, having lived through two wars in my childhood years (in 1967 and 1973). I have chilling memories of frequent blackouts, the sound of wailing sirens in the middle of the night prompting families, including mine, to take cover in cramped basements, injured soldiers, some no older than adolescents, crying out in pain as they lay on their hospital beds and the shrill cries of a neighbour when she received the news of her husband’s death as he fought on the frontlines. Although the peace treaty has spared Egyptians a repeat of such horrors over the last 30 years, such atrocities are still a reality of the daily lives of Palestinians living in Gaza and the occupied territories. Israelis meanwhile, live in constant fear of suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

It was these haunting memories of war that led me to speak with the Israeli soldier who himself is a victim of the ongoing conflict. Serving as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces, he was abducted in an ambush while on duty and was held captive in solitary confinement by Hamas for five long years. During that period he was neither allowed to speak to his family nor directly contact loved ones save for a videotape he sent while in captivity. I could only see Shalit as someone who had suffered a terrible ordeal. I did not wish to prolong his suffering but simply wanted him to tell his story, the human aspect of it.

Palestinian detainees who were released on the same day as Shalit had suffered a similar fate, spending years behind bars without having committed a serious crime. Only a handful of the released prisoners were militants who had masterminded or been involved in attacks on Israelis and they had not been allowed to return home. Instead, they were sent to a third destination and were to return home only after the end of their jail terms. One of the released detainees, a Palestinian woman, told me she had been jailed for fifteen years for throwing stones at an Israeli soldier. That is the price of war… As often is the case, both sides to the conflict pay a high price and sadly, the Arab Israeli conflict is the longest running conflict in the world, with no near-end in sight.

Neither was the interview coerced, as some Israelis suggested.

Furthermore, the fifteen or so masked soldiers from the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades who had brought Shalit to Rafah had already left the border town when my cameras started rolling. The interview was not conducted at gunpoint as some Israeli analysts later suggested. A Hamas soldier standing behind Shalit in a photo, which later, was widely circulated on the internet, was taken before, not during, the interview.

Shalit sent a message of peace saying it was his wish to see “every Palestinian detainee in Israeli jails freed as long as he did not attack fellow-Israelis.” He meanwhile thanked the Egyptian authorities for helping secure his release. His words enraged some Israelis who accused me of “fishing for compliments for the Egyptian regime.” I responded by reminding the critics of my unruly exit from State Television during the revolution, affirming that the mediators responsible for the success of the latest prisoner swap deserved praise. In response to the criticism I told Israeli radio that “Mubarak had promised for five years to secure Shalit’s release but had failed. Both Israelis and Palestinians should be celebrating.”

After a full year, Shalit has finally broken his silence. In an interview with Israel’s 10 this week (on the anniversary of his release) he recounted how he had played games to preserve his sanity during his years in captivity. Reflecting on the interview he gave me a year ago, he said that I was the first woman he had seen in more than five years, adding “she did not hug me.”

He did however admit that in a gesture of compassion, I had squeezed his hand. I can only respond by saying that we are all humans and I look forward to the day when Palestinians and Israelis can coexist harmoniously in two states living side by side peacefully. Our new president has promised to respect all previously-signed international agreements including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Israel too should show that it is serious about peace by halting the building of illegal settlements and the daily killing of Palestinian civilians.

For the sake of my country and my children, I sincerely hope I never have to live through another war again…

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