Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who sets the captive free

Looking at the pictures of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit being released from six years of captivity under the Hamas regime in Gaza, and the scenes of scores of Palestinian fighters being released from prisons in Israel, I could not help but think of the verse in the traditional Jewish morning prayers, the Amidah, in which the worshiper praises God for many kinds of acts on behalf of humans including, "who sets free the captive" (in some translations). Those words have always amazed me. I understand why we would need God to raise the dead, and perhaps to heal the very sick, but cannot we free prisoners on our own?

There is of course, an interesting theme in TORAH concerning the role of God in human decisions about freedom (think of Pharaoh's heart being "hardened" against freeing the Israelites); as if the almighty were daring us to raise the more fundamental question of when humans really can choose anything freely. But it also reminds us that there is something divine in the freeing of any prisoner, an act of trust, faith, and belief in the possibility that tomorrow will be different, and that we who hold the captive can escape our own prison of fear.

For now, as Ethan Bronner reports (here) in today's NYTimes, the site of prisoners being released has hardened hearts on both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Israelis, at first thrilled at the sight of their liberated soldier, were angered by how he looked — frail, wan and underfed.

Hamas officials said their members had been subject in Israeli prisons to “torture, compulsion and revenge.”

The overall strategic assessment, appears equally bleak, with the deal having strengthened to two elements in the Israel/Palestine sovereignty conflict most associated with rejection of compromise, Hamas and Netanyahu. Call me an optimist but I think the shifting of the conflict, even temporarily to the prisoner front is a good thing. Each side and the world should now look hard at these prisoners and demand an accounting for how they were treated.

In that regard Hamas should hang its head in shame for releasing Shalit in a visibly emaciated and sickly state. Any claim in the world that they represent the legitimate aspirations of Palestinian people is put into question by this image, and by their decision to deny Red Cross access to their prisoner. Shalit's own testimony will tell us more about the conditions under which he was kept. Perhaps Hamas can convince us that it's own status as a hunted outlaw organization, and the all seeing eye of Israeli intelligence, explains the necessity of both conditions, but it will be against a heavy burden of proof on a regime that has all the attributes of statehood other than legitimacy.

At the same time, they should present their prisoners to the world to back up their claims of "torture, compulsion and revenge." These are the right questions to ask of the means and motive of any regime of imprisonment, no matter how presumptively valid (Hamas might want to look into the mirror of "compulsion and revenge" while they are at it). Israel also must regret its ill advised decision just this September to strip Palestinian prisoners of many of their opportunities for communication and education, to increase pressure on Hamas to release Shalit. Nobody assumes Israeli prisons are as crude as the conditions under which Gilad Shalit was held, but long term imprisonment presents a path to degradating and inhuman treatment just as inexorable as bad conditions and lack of nourishment. Things that can seem like frills in the abstract, communication and education, become essential to the maintenance of human dignity when the years turn to decades. Israel must also question the validity of holding so many prisoners and for so long. Mass incarceration makes no more sense as a military strategy than it does as a crime control one. Suicide bombing has stopped because of the barrier wall and the political choice of Hamas to rely on rockets, not because there are not enough demoralized young people to carry them.

I am most hopeful because the debate about the prisoners has the chance to elevate a conflict that has been for too long about blood and soil, and bring it back to the real interests of the human beings on both sides. The Egyptian video-taped interview of Gilad Shalit as he was transferred from the custody of Hamas may raise ethical questions, but you could not escape the simple dignity of Shalit's quiet and deliberate answers to the journalist's questions. The story of a mother fainting on hearing the news that her daughter, an attempted suicide bomber, would be on the bus returning after twelve years in prison (read Chris McGreal's reporting in the Guardian) reminds us of the shear physical power of our bonds to our children.

The captive, stripped of the elements, bomb belts and uniforms, which once made him or her a threat in the eyes of the captors, becomes, in the end, a human being, and a representative of the divine in all of us.

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