When Hamas was capturing Gilad Shalit from a tank position on the Gaza border and the Palestinian Resistance Committees were abducting Eliyahu Asheri as he hitchhiked up the West Bank on his way to a camping trip, I was in the north trying to catch a ride with some friends to the Kinneret.
One of us got a text message about the first kidnapping, but we didn't hear it. We were on our own fantasy-land adventure.
I decided Saturday night to take a midnight bus to Tsfat, since I was supposed to go to nearby Kadita with Tiferet on Friday and then bailed because I'd been at the Roger Waters show the night before and couldn't handle the idea of trekking north before Shabbat. Meir said he would go with me. I'd ended up spending Shabbat at my friend's parents "house" (mansion, by Israeli standards) with 10 other people, one of whom forgot his bag there. So before heading north, we went to the guy's house to return his bag. Someone there told us to go to a dinner honoring our friends who just got married, so we figured we'd go for 15 minutes. We'd been there for five when this guy came in, looked at me in the eye, told me he was the groom's cousin, had seen me at the wedding, and asked me my name. I told him who I was, said we were leaving for Tsfat in 10 minutes, and asked him if he wanted to go. He stood up, said yes, and 10 minutes later we were off.
We got to Tsfat at probably the same time Palestinian militants crossed the Gaza border and ambushed Shalit and his crew, abducting him, killing two of his friends, and injuring one.
Halfway up north, we debated whether to go straight to Tsfat or straight to the Kinneret. Public transportation being what it is at 3:00 in the morning, we opted to stay on our bus and get to Tsfat. When we got to what is one of the oddest cities in the world, we grabbed a couple of mattresses and a guitar from a guy at Meir's old school, and climbed up the roof of an old synagogue dedicated to the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria. We played music and talked about harmony and fell asleep in the sun.
We spent the next day wandering around Tsfat, and then headed toward the Golan. No-one stopped for us. We didn't know Eliyahu Asheri was doing the same thing in the West Bank. We didn't know he was being kidnapped and killed. We decided to go to the Kinneret. It was hot and we didn't want to spend the whole day on the road.
We ended up spending most of the day on the road. The driving force of these treks around Israel is the journey. It's the hitchhiking and the amazing people who drift into your life for a Lord of the Rings-like adventure on a random day when you should be working but happen to not. We got to a beautiful little jungle cove on the Kinneret, and pushed our way through the smelly piles of garbage that obtrusively invade the air and water, emerging in what really looked like paradise; all green and blue and white, huge trees and lake and crabs, and a natural pool, and beds of rocks. We stayed for a few hours, and then Tiferet came, and we started walking along the shore, looking for a place to sleep.
We found ourselves on the road. A young couple in a nice car pulled over and said, "get in. This is totally unsafe." We crammed into the car. They dropped us off at a kibbutz, where we wandered around looking for a beach. We snuck past the hotel, and were promptly herded out by a guard who showed us a reed-infested, mosquito-swarming, patch of dry grass to sleep on instead. The trek continued, this time on foot, through the fields and the orchard, and now the dark, about 3 km until we made it to a fairly muddy, but fairly accesssible beach. We lit a fire, and went swimming. The ground was too muddy to sleep on. I found a restaurant about 200 meters down the beach, deserted, with white leather benches on a patio. I curled up and slept for a few hours. I found everybody else in the morning in an orchard behind the beach, where there was one tree connected by branches with six different trunks. The owner of the house told us it had been in his family for 80 years, and that every time a branch reaches the ground, it becomes absorbed into the earth and then grows more roots, another trunk. He gave us each another lichi.
We started the trek home together, and then split up. I got to Tel Aviv early Monday afternoon, and passed out for five hours. I hadn't had a good night sleep since Tuesday. At 12 am I went to work. I'd looked at the website before crashing and updated myself, but now I was at work. No more fantasy-land. Two people were kidnapped. It wasn't clear if either were alive.
It became clearer over the next few days. Eliyahu's body was found Thursday morning in a field in Ramallah. The IDF had dismissed the PRC's claim of kidnapping a civilian, and his parents didn't report him missing until Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday, his kidnappers showed his ID card. His parents thought he was going camping. So did he.
Israeli tanks moved into southern Gaza a week ago Wednesday, the IDF's first ground incursion there since it pulled its troops last September. Prime Minister Olmert swore this was not a bid to reoccupy Gaza. Israel has no intention of staying in Gaza, he said. We just want to bring our boy home.
They started by bombing three bridges in central Gaza, splitting the strip between north and south. Intelligence had heard Shalit was being held near Khan Yunis, in the south, and that the kidnappers were planning to cross into Sinai. The tanks crossed the border.
Hamas offered to negotiate on Shalit's life, first saying it would release information, and then the soldier himself, if 1,000 women and under-18-year-old prisoners from Israeli jails. Israel said no negotiations, "we will not succumb to extortion." Then Olmert said, well, maybe non-security prisoners. Then balked. 'No,' he affirmed it, 'no negotiations.' Hamas issued an ultimatum: Israel had until 6 A.M. Wednesday (a week after the incursion) to realease the prisoners or suffer the un-specified "consequences." Israel chose the consequences: "We will not succumb to extortion..." yet "we just want to bring our boy home."
Esther Wachsman, the mother of the last IDF soldier to be kidnapped by Hamas, in 1994, wrote in Haaretz that while she in no way advocated the release of terrorists from prison, she begged Israel to reconsider its offensive in Gaza. Nachshon Wachsman was killed during the IDF operation to free him, along with another soldier. Esther Wachsman writes that on the same day Hamas issued a similar ultimatum on her son's life - prisoner for prisoner - Peres, Rabin and Araft announced that they were to receive the Nobel peace prize. When asked what kind of peace they had achieved in light of Nachshon Wachsman's abduction, Peres answered, "in war, we must take calculated risks."
The IDF moved on into northern Gaza yesterday. It's what Israel's been wanting to do since September, ever since the settlements were crumbled and the Qassam rockets started flying daily into the western Negev town of Sderot. They moved into Gaza even before Tuesday's rocket hit the empty parking lot of a school in central Ashkelon. They moved into northern Gaza to slam the launching sites and the militants behind them from all sides, on the ground, not just from the air. The air hasn't proven so effective - three different strikes on Qassam-firing militants ended up killing 14 civilians in three weeks, and injuring just a few of the militants.
The IDF has wanted to return to the ground in Gaza since it left. It just hasn't had the excuse. It stuck to air strikes, because while denounced, it wasn't outright occupation. Now they've got the excuse - a captured soldier - and have conveniently twisted the operation to include all the errands they've had to run in the northern Strip and throughout. Olmert said the plan was to make sure Gazans didn't sleep at night. He wants to bring our boy home. And stop Qassams. And put pressure on Palestinian civilians - as if this is the kind of pressure that's going to do anything other than create and sustain a new generation of Palestinians who are going to hate Israel with even more of a passion and more of a justification than their parents for all their brothers and sisters and uncles and friends and mothers and fathers killed by IDF fire.
Three Qassam rockets, at 15 kilometers their longest range yet, landed in Ashkelon in the last two days. Israel called this a 'declaration of war,' as it does so often, and the air force bombarded the north, where most launching sites sit in the rubble of former settlements. Now that they were already in Gaza, reoccupying militarily, the IDF rolled right up to the north, and showed what they meant by war. But the history of the region is one of pattern. It doesn't lie. With each IDF or Palestinian attack, comes a response even fiercer than the one before.
If the government wanted to bring Gilad Shalit home, it would negotiate, or focalize its operation, not use it as an excuse to have its way with Gaza.