[This piece was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and many other books, for the website of the non-stop TV news channel that broadcasts from Israel, i24news.tv .]
The similar yet different cases of U.S. Sgt. Bergdahl and Israeli Sgt. Shalit
These are the similarities.
Both came from small communities. One in the Upper Galilee in Israel. The other in Idaho, USA. They were born the same year – 1986. Both were soldiers. The Israeli served in a tank battalion. The American as an infantryman. Both were held in miserable conditions in captivity by cruel enemies, and were subjected to psychological pressure and brain wash.
Both were taken prisoner under dubious circumstances without putting up any resistance. The Israeli did not fire a single bullet at his Hamas captors from Gaza and it remains unclear whether he fell asleep when he was supposed to be standing guard over his tank comrades, two of whom were killed by the terrorists who captured him. The American probably deserted his unit and went over to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Both were held in captivity for about five years and eventually released in prisoner swaps between their respective governments and terrorist groups. For several years both governments had refused to bend to the terrorists’ demands and rejected proposed deals. Until the leaders of the two countries, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel and US President Barack Obama, changed their minds.
The swaps were controversial and generated heated political debate and public emotion. Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit was released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists – hundreds of them serving life sentences or, as they are known in Israeli parlance, “with blood on their hands.”
But here the similarities end. The differences are rooted in precedents, experience, national ethos as well as historical and cultural dimensions.
The Shalit family, funded by the Israeli government, accused the government of abandoning its son. From day one they campaigned publicly here and abroad for his release at any cost.
After crossing the border from Gaza and being flown into an Israeli airfield, Gilad Shalit was personally received by Netanyahu and later received a hero’s welcome in his village. The Israeli media was ecstatic, with live broadcasts on radio and television. Upon his release, Israelis swept their differences under the carpet and gathered around their national consensual “campfire.”
Very few politicians (mainly from the Israeli far right), military men or journalists dared raise questions about the wisdom of the deal, the heavy price paid by the state and the unclear circumstances of his capture.
His tank and platoon comrades refuse to divulge the truth about what happened the night Shalit was captured. He became a celebrity, was invited to trendy parties, was an item on gossip columns and a columnist for the influential. mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot.
In the United States, the opposite has happened. While in captivity, Bergdahl’s family was not seen in public. The media showed very little interest in the US prisoner.
Bergdahl was handed over by the Taliban to a Delta Force team and flown for medical treatment and intelligence debriefings to an American air base in Germany. The US media was not present and the US government did not release any imagery of the swap. The only footage made public courtesy of the propaganda department of the Taliban, which released a video recording showing its version of the handover.
Unlike the Israeli public, the American public remains highly polarized over the release and refuses to bury the tough questions surrounding Bergdahl’s capture.
His comrades rushed to open the closet and reveal Bergdahl’s skeletons. They said he was not taken in combat, but rather laid down his weapon and walked away from his unit and disappeared. For some, he is simply a deserter.
He may yet be court martialed, and it is thus doubtful that President Obama will greet him at the White House.
And still, one more common trait stands out. Israeli and American governments state with inflammatory rhetoric that “we shall never surrender to terrorists” and yet they do, time and again. Israel, though, does so more often and with greater readiness to pay a higher price.