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Too Much Fuss Over Shalit – OpEd

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By Linda Heard

Sunday I watched “Tony Blair of Jerusalem” — which is apparently how he signs himself in embassy guest books nowadays — being interviewed by the BBC’s Jon Sopel. Jerusalem is a big part of his life now and he feels very much at home there, he explains. Intellectually, I despise the former British prime minister for slavishly following George W. Bush into Afghanistan and Iraq on a pack of lies but each time he speaks, rather than taking off my slipper to throw it at the screen, I’m sucked-in by his incredible charisma and carefully-contrived “sensible” arguments, almost against my will. It seems that others are too.

BBC cameras followed Blair, who now represents the Quartet, around the West Bank, where people in the street greeted him with hugs and offers of Turkish coffee. A smiling white-haired Palestinian man told him during his visit to a mosque in Nazareth that he was to blame for the Iraq War. “I know…I know but it’s very difficult,” was Blair’s hesitant response whereupon his critic laughed and gave him a friendly pat on the back. Most peculiar! And especially so when Blair has said he would do Iraq all over again, is attached at the hip to the Netanyahu government and did little toward bringing about a two-state solution during his years at Number Ten.

Love him or hate him, Blair has the type of personality most politicians would kill for. If he hadn’t studied law, he could have been a top-grossing used-car salesman or a hotel “employee of the month”, nay the decade.

There I was happily being brainwashed by his humor-laden tones and modest demeanor and wondering whether he would accept my invitation to tea next time he visited Egypt when I was jolted out of my jolly reverie when the man with the silver tongue called on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit — the abducted Israel soldier who has been held in Gaza for the last five years. I immediately recalled his statement last month when he expressed his solidarity with Shalit’s family, calling his confinement “inhumane” and saying “in whatever we’re doing we should never, and do never, leave either his name or his condition off the agenda.”

Blair has his priorities wrong. Either that or he’s far too biased toward the Israeli side to be a fitting Middle East Envoy for the Quartet — or maybe not, when in a declaration dated May 27, 2011, G8 countries also demanded Shalit’s release, which is nothing short of shameful. The world’s richest nations never cease to put on blindfolds when it comes to Israel’s crimes yet they will happily spend precious minutes of their summit to cry crocodile tears over a single IDF soldier.

While it’s true that Shalit’s captivity has become a major cause célèbre within Israel, largely due to his parents’ unwavering tenacity, he’s a soldier after all and judging by a video released in 2009, he’s healthy and is being treated reasonably well. You may feel that Blair’s compassion for the young man is admirable but let’s not forget that he sent hundreds of British soldiers to their death in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that were waged in pursuit of Bush’s neoconservative “New American Century” full-spectrum dominance agenda. Many others are maimed and scarred for life.

But most importantly, Blair’s preoccupation with one Israeli soldier who is a household name worldwide when hardly anyone knows the name of a single US or UK military fatality — or the names of up to the 700,000 men, women and children (representing some 20 percent of the Palestinian population living in the occupied territories) who have been imprisoned in Israeli jails since the 1967 War. Israel currently holds up to 7,000 Palestinians, including children, many of whom have been beaten and ill-treated.

According to a report by Senussi Bsaikri published on Middle East Monitor last year, since the capture of Shalit, “many prisoners have been denied family visits and collective punishments have been imposed along with the imposition of fines and strip searches. Moreover, many inmates are denied access to the prison canteens where they can normally watch TV. In addition, rations of water and bread have been reduced,” Bsaikri writes.

It should be remembered that many of those detained have never been convicted of any crime in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, while others have been incarcerated for throwing stones at occupying forces. Prisoners have launched hunger strikes as a protest against being kept for years in solitary confinement and Israel’s refusal to provide some with essential medical treatment, clean clothes, showers and visits from loved ones. Blair has plenty to say about one Israeli soldier but what does he say about the 7,000 currently locked-up in “inhumane” conditions. Apparently, not much!

In fact, those complaining about Shalit’s detention should count themselves lucky to know he’s still alive. The families of Bilal Samadi, Mohammed Saeed El Jarrar and Jamil Amhaz — just three out of some 25 Lebanese abducted by Israelis during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon — have been left in limbo. A few of the detained have been sighted in Israeli prisons, which Israel consistently denies. The Israeli authorities also deny burying at least five Lebanese militants in secret graves.

Without doubt, Blair and others have bought-in to the message of Israel’s former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu who famously said, “The life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs,” or as Rabbi Ya’acov Perin once said, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail”.

I’ve nothing against Shalit. I wish him well and hope he goes back to his caring family soon in the same way that I hope the thousands of Palestinians and tens of Lebanese confined for decades on spurious charges go home to theirs. But the truth is that the ball is in Netanyahu’s court.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, Hamas asks for the release of Palestinian women and children under 18-years-old plus 1,000 named prisoners, including a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council Marwan Bargouti sentenced to five life sentences following a trial he described as “illegal and illegitimate” and during which he refused to defend himself.

Such disparity between the way the Western world treats Israelis and Arabs borders on racism. Unless Western leaders and officials like Blair show fairness and impartiality they should not be respected as peace brokers but as a major part of the problem.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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