On Tuesday, October 18, as Gilad Schalit returned home, Israelis took to the streets in a bittersweet celebration – the joy of a son coming home tempered by the release of convicted murderers and other terrorists. Similar to the annual transition of Remembrance Day to Independence Day, the Schalit celebrations felt uniquely Israeli.
The episode has some finality as the Schalit protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence is disassembled and the posters and signs removed. In fact, the conference room in our Jerusalem office overlooks the tent where the Schalit family stayed for the 15 months before Gilad’s release. A return to normalcy on that part of the street is an uncanny reminder of the presence Schalit had in our minds.
At the center of the five-year ordeal to free Schalit was an abject failure of justice and international law. The hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in this region – and claim in some manner to promote human rights – never adopted the Schalit cause as a raison d’etre. On the contrary, since his captivity began, organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Euro- Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Gisha, and Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) did not conduct sustained, coordinated campaigns on his behalf. Gilad Schalit was simply not a priority for these NGOs.
Instead, NGOs used this issue to condemn Israeli responses to terror from Gaza. The few statements released by NGOs in the past five years drew moral equivalence between Schalit, who was illegally held incommunicado and without access to the International Red Cross, and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisoners according to international legal standards.
During the week preceding Schalit’s return, these same NGOs continued to display moral bankruptcy. Not a single NGO condemned the extortion exacted by Hamas on Israel, resulting in freedom for hundreds of terrorists who were tried and convicted according to due process of law. Aside from adding to incentives for future attacks against civilians, the use of Gilad Schalit as a hostage to force the release of individuals who have not completed their sentences seriously undermines international legal principles and promotes impunity for heinous crimes.
Instead of using Schalit’s release as a chance to speak out clearly against hostage taking, extortion and the abuse of law, NGOs continued to immorally equate his release to that of convicted murderers.
Gisha, for example, wrote: “We join in the sigh of relief that is palpable today throughout Israel and of course the relief felt by the Schalit family and the families of the prisoners who will be released.”
In a joint statement, Adalah, al- Mezan, and Arab Association for Human Rights claimed that “the release of 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons a positive step.”
But these supposed human rights organizations should not feel any relief when one prisoner of war is leveraged to release murderers. This represents a gross miscarriage of justice and human rights, not a “positive step.”
Did Gisha feel relief for the release of Ahlam Tamimi, who drove the suicide bomber and the bomb to the Sbarro pizzeria in the center of Jerusalem in 2001 and waited calmly for the explosion that murdered 16, including many children? Tamimi is a cold-blooded mass murderer by any definition, who boasted and laughed about her “accomplishments” in television interviews from an Israeli jail after she was caught, tried and sentenced. Yet none of these self-proclaimed human rights organizations condemned her or her release.
The failure is particularly severe for Israeli NGOs, which proudly claim to uphold human rights for all Israelis and frequently appear before the Supreme Court in pursuit of their own agendas on Gaza. In contrast, they were nowhere to be seen when the families of the terror victims made their case in court.
Similarly, if they had acted with moral consistency, B’Tselem, similar NGOs, and foreign governments, would have used their close connections to UN and other bodies to make Gilad Schalit’s case a serious issue internationally, as they did regarding both the blockade of Gaza and Palestinian prisoners. Would Schalit have returned home sooner if Israeli NGOs had used their influence in these forums? Or if Human Rights Watch had held a press conference in Jerusalem’s American Colony hotel, as they have done for so many reports critical of Israeli policies? There is clear cause for celebration – a son has come home to his family and country. At the same time, the entire case is emblematic of an NGO network that cherry-picks which human rights issues deserve its attention based on biased political and ideological agendas.
This practice makes a mockery of moral claims, international law and justice.
Releasing more than 1,000 terrorists and murderers may be a necessary evil, but it is an evil, nonetheless. Unfortunately, human rights NGOs have refused to speak out against it.
The writers are communications director and managing editor of NGO Monitor