Flotilla: media's big omission

Few saw that the blockade is a crucial bargaining chip in the Shalit talks

By Alex Brummer, July 1, 2010

Amid the mountain of hostile media coverage following the raid on the Gaza flotilla last month, little was made of the personal accounts of the IDF forces involved. Yet what is absolutely clear from this testimony - which is available on major websites, including the BBC - is that what the soldiers most feared was the permanent capture of one of their colleagues.

The detention of 23-year-old Gilad Shalit - who is now at the start of his fifth year of Hamas captivity - on June 25, 2006 provides a stark reminder of the extenuating circumstances surrounding the botched Israeli boarding.

What Israel can never afford is to offer difficult neighbours new bargaining chips. The monitoring group Honest Reporting notes that in the "media frenzy" of editorials that followed the flotilla incident, several major media outlets, including the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Guardian and the Irish Times, failed to make any Shalit connection whatsoever.

The Toronto Globe & Mail mentioned Shalit in passing. The Los Angeles Times made the connection, calling on Hamas to free him.

Sympathetic as much of the press surrounding Shalit's captivity has been, this broader point has been largely ignored by most newspapers. A lengthy report by Harriet Sherwood, who is the new Jerusalem correspondent of the Guardian, focused mainly on the political pressure which the Shalit family is heaping on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The report quotes a video message calling for the Netanyahu-led government to "pay the price necessary" for Shalit's release.

The paper says the pressure on the government to do all in its power to set Shalit free is intense, with polls showing that the Israeli public supports an exchange of 1,000 Palestinian detainees for Shalit. It notes that Shalit's fate has great resonance with Israeli families where young people are required to serve in the military.

Sherwood notes that the names on the Hamas "wish list" for release include Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader often mentioned as a future Palestinian president/PM; and Ahmed Sa'adat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel says he is the person behind the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001.

Shalit's value to the Palestinians was emphasised by reports in Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post. "Gilad will not be the only one," Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was quoted as saying. "We will kidnap more soldiers, including officers."

Hamas has not been slow to recognise a connection between Shalit's captivity and the flotilla incident. Mashaal pronounced that breaking the blockade (even though it has been eased) is Hamas's main priority and encouraged "new flotillas" as a means of embarrassing Israel.

The Shalit family looks determined to up the pressure on the Israeli government despite Hamas's efforts to exploit Israel's apparent helplessness.

The BBC website, which includes a timeline of the events leading to Shalit's captivity, notes that parents Noam and Aviva say they are determined to remain camped outside Netanyahu's residence until the young soldier is released.

The campaign for Shalit's release has taken on some of the characteristics - such as the yellow ribbon symbol - pioneered by the families of American captives during the siege at the US embassy in Iran in 1979.

It has been joined by celebrities such as supermodel Bar Refaeli, the Daily Telegraph noted, and many are wearing yellow ribbons or T-shirts.

According to the Telegraph, the Shalit family thinks that the government made an error by easing the blockade of Gaza while Shalit is still captive and denied access to the International Red Cross.

Plainly, Nethanyahu finds himself squeezed between public opinion that more should be done and mounting Hamas threats.

There could be no greater demonstration of why the Western media's reporting of the flotilla attack was so poor than the long-drawn-out misery of Shalit's captivity.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:21am, July 1 2010