I am the father of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit….

I know that this [U.N. Fact-Finding Mission] is determined to give the victims of the recent conflict in Gaza an opportunity to make their voices heard. So, with your kind permission, I would like to use this distinguished forum … first to address you and then to address the people of Gaza and, in particular, the people holding my son Gilad….

A few weeks ago you were in Gaza. You met the Hamas hierarchy. According to the Ma’an news agency, [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyya welcomed your mission, deploring what he viewed as Israel’s grave violations of international law. The same news agency reported that the mission thanked Mr. Haniyya for his cooperation in facilitating its work…. If this cooperation is indeed genuine, then the same Hamas hierarchy should honor your eventual findings – whatever they may be.

And I have no doubt that … you will determine that my son’s violent abduction and his continuing detention subject to extortion is, equally, a violation of international law….

The same Geneva Convention of 1949 that this mission will use to judge the legality of the Israeli attack on Gaza forbids the holding for ransom of an individual, whether … a soldier or otherwise. The same Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court by which the Palestinian Authority seeks to charge the Israeli hierarchy condemns the Hamas leadership no less for the crime of taking hostages – soldiers or otherwise….

But what is the purpose of this honorable mission? Is it really to lay the basis for a future criminal prosecution? Or is it, perhaps, to effect reconciliation? Know that the minds and hearts of the Israeli people are with my son…. His release – which it is within your power to promote – will bring about such reconciliation.

I would like to address the Palestinian victims of Operation Cast Lead.

People of Gaza, I do not come before this mission as a representative of the Israeli state. I come neither to condemn nor to justify the recent Israeli operations in Gaza. I am not a politician nor do I care for politics. I am a civilian and the father of three.

I last saw my son Gilad on Wednesday, June 21, 2006, when he returned to the military service that his country obliged him to perform by law. A few days later, his patrol was sabotaged by armed Palestinians, two of his fellow soldiers were killed before his very eyes, and he was abducted. He was 19…, a shy boy with a nervous smile and a studious disposition…. He is gentle and sensitive to the suffering of others.

People of Gaza,… he was not attacking your territory. He was not even in your territory. He was operating within the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, protecting the integrity of what was supposed to be a border of peace after a complete Israeli withdrawal.

Your leaders say Gilad is a prisoner of war. I say he is an abductee. The difference is in the interpretation of the law. But even if your leaders hold my son as a prisoner of war, why will they not allow him the privileges that attach to such a status? Gilad has no contact with the outside world. Your leaders refuse him access to the International Committee of the Red Cross – the same Red Cross that regularly visits your people held captive in Israeli prisons, the same Red Cross that protests the violations of their rights to the Israeli government.

People of Gaza, your leaders are fighting to return your sons and daughters from captivity. This is an understandable desire. You may agree with such a policy. Many of you, however, will realize that the fate of an entire prison population cannot depend on the ransom of one young man.

Your leaders have committed a crime with respect to my son. They hold him to ransom and, by the same token, they hold all of you to ransom. For three years now, you have been held hostage to the inflexible demands of your leaders and their unwillingness to compromise. They issue demands that, I fear, the Israeli government will never meet. My son’s fate is the means through which your leaders distract your attention from the destruction they have brought upon you. Is this humane? Are these the acts of an honorable regime?

People of Gaza, do not ignore the root cause of our mutual suffering. You know that the injustice done to my son was the trigger for war. You also know that the release of my son is the key to peace and the lifting of the Israeli commercial blockade. A small gesture and a little effort on both sides can relieve the misery of many.

President Sarkozy of France recently told Prime Minister Netanyahu that your leaders would not release Gilad until Israel freed prisoners. I am not a party to talks on prisoner release. I am not consulted on numbers and I have no say in the conduct of negotiations. Like many of you, all that concerns me is that the one I love returns home. Do those of you who are waiting for the return of those close to you care for the politics? Do you care for the posturing of your leaders? Or do you, like me, wish that this war and what caused it would never have happened?

But if a prisoner exchange need be the course we are forced to adopt, let reason and moderation overcome excessive demands. Let not a stalemate in the negotiations prevail over the will of the people. Let not stubborness triumph over compassion.

People of Gaza, like many of you, we are suffering the consequences of the decisions and failures of others. Like many of you, my family and I have been caught up in a web of violence. Like many of you, I pay a heavy price…. You are short of food. Some of your loved ones have been killed – women and children, young and innocent. I understand your distress and sympathize with your grief. I have visited your wounded from Beit Hanoun and have witnessed … the unnecessary suffering and the unspeakable atrocity of war. But even so, I do not compare suffering. As a parent speaking to a multitude of parents, I ask you to understand my family’s anguish. As the days go by, we begin to despair. We despair of the day when we will see our son again. I know neither where he is held nor how he fares. Whether he is injured or whether he is even alive.

And finally to the people holding my son: I urge you to release [him]. You have the power to act with grace. Do it for the respectability that you wish the international community to accord you. Do it because you see yourselves as statesmen acting with humane intent. Do it for the sake of the respect you say you show this mission. Do it not for gain but do it, I beg you, because it is the just and right thing to do. But most important of all, do it for the peace and welfare of your own people.

United Nations Watch