Rachelle Kliger
The Media Line
December 23, 2009 - 1:00am

Every day for the past three and a half years, campaigners have sat at a makeshift tent outside the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem in protest, cajoling passersby to sign a petition urging the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

At first, the campaigners were loud and aggressive. People who passed the tent without signing would get called back, stickers and fliers thrown into their faces. Not signing, the campaigners explained, was simply not an option.

But the sands have shifted in Israeli public opinion over the past few months and as Israel and Hamas negotiate a deal under which up to a thousand Palestinians would be released in exchange for one soldier’s freedom, the once solid consensus that Shalit should be ‘released at any price’ is cracking.

Today, campaigners sit in the tent silently, almost apologetically. Passersby picking an argument with the Shalit supporters is more and more common, and the families of terror victims have started staging counter vigils on the opposite side of the street in which they display pictures of their slain loved ones.

How did the Israeli public come to such a radical change of mind?

“More and more people are paying more attention to the price,” Prof. Camil Fuchs, a statistics expert at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line, “whereas at first they were disciplined and in tune with the very large and well-planned campaign in favor of his release.”

At the end of November Fuchs supervised a poll conducted by the Dialogue Institute for Israeli Channel 10, in which Israelis were asked two conflicting questions.

The first question asked “are you for or against a deal to release Gilad Shalit?”

83% said they were in favor, 6% were against.

The second question asked “Do you agree to releasing ‘heavy terrorists’ from jail in exchange for Gilad Shalit?” Here, 46% were in favor and 43% were against.

“People react emotionally,” Fuchs explained. “In the first question it’s clear that they are in favor of releasing Shalit, but in the second question, when they get into the small print, things get a bit more complicated. A lot of people now know what the deal is about and many have reservations.”

“The public discourse has shifted,” he said. “People are now exposed to a different position. Public opinion is very dynamic.”

The Israeli media, Fuchs said, has been playing a crucial role in cementing support for Shalit’s release.

“On Channel 2 there’s a current affairs show every day at 6 o’clock, and they have a counter that tells the viewers how many days Gilad Shalit has been in captivity,” he added. “The media rallied around this and recognized that this issue touched many people. But you only heard voices in favor of the deal.”

“The general feeling is that those who are in favor of the deal are very outright about it,” Fuchs explained. “Those against the deal have, up until now, kept quiet, out of a deep respect for the family.”

“You’ll notice that they never say anything about ‘releasing terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit.’ What they do talk about is ‘releasing Gilad Shalit’,” he said. “It’s because they justifiably don’t want to bring up the issue of the price for discussion. The price could be that people will be killed because of this. It’s just that those people don’t have names.”

“That’s how media campaigns work,” Fuchs said. “But that’s also how we humans are wired. We’re predictably irrational.”

Professor Oz Almog, a sociologist from Haifa University told The Media Line, argued that while public opinion may be shifting, the majority was still in favor of a trade to bring Shalit home.

“The opponents of the deal are still a minority,” he told The Media Line. “The media has, over the course of time, published more arguments against the deal [since] the arguments against the deal become more valid once you understand the price. As long as it’s something abstract, it doesn’t bring out the opponents.”

“There are plenty of people,” he added, “who are sitting on the fence and are torn between the two sides.”

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, 23, was captured on the Gazan border by Hamas and three other armed organizations on June 25, 2006 during his mandatory military service.

He remains in captivity, supposedly in the Gaza Strip, as Hamas demands the release of 450 prisoners followed by 500 more in a two stage deal.

Israel is reluctant to release any member of Hamas, which it designates a terror organization, and Jerusalem is especially concerned that released prisoners with ‘blood on their hands’ will resume terror activities against Israeli civilians.

While critics of the deal say Hamas is feeding off Israel’s weaknesses and strengthening Hamas, there are fears that a failure to secure Shalit’s release will lower morale among Israeli soldiers and soldiers-to-be, who may lose confidence in a government who abandoned a peer.

“We’ve passed the point of no return,” Almog said. “Any government that would now say ‘no’ in the face of such strong public opinion and the media would be unacceptable. So the government is now trying to appease the public and the media, but in a way that will mitigate their so-called submissiveness.”

A major contributor to the pro-deal camp, Almog said, is Shalit’s family, who has been very active in the media. Noam Shalit, Gilad’s soft-spoken father, has become the unofficial spokesman for the family and the campaign, while a vast network of friends and supporters have been doing a lot of footwork to ensure that Shalit remains in the public’s awareness.

“This has a huge impact,” Almog said. “They are conducting themselves in a very noble manner. They’re not hysterical; they’re not attacking the people who are against the deal. Without a doubt they are playing a crucial part in this. They never demanded anything by panicking and screaming. Their behavior is very restrained and this only strengthens the public opinion in their favor.”

Shalit’s exact whereabouts are unclear and international organizations such as the Red Cross have not been given access to him. There have been signs of life from Shalit in the form of a recorded message, a letter and a videotape recorded in September.


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