Today was your 24th birthday. A day you should have spent with your family. Today was also my husband’s birthday. Yesterday, my youngest two children wrote their father letters and when he left for the synagogue, we slipped the letters under the plastic lining of the table so that as he ate his dinner with his family, letters of love and good wishes surrounded him.
This afternoon, we gave him presents and birthday cake and best wishes for a happy and wonderful birthday. He starts this new year as he spent his last one – together with his family, surrounded by his sons and daughters, having built a life, a home, here in his land.
Today, Gilad, you weren’t home. Your friends, those who served with you, have mostly left the army, as you probably would have if you had not been taken that fateful day in 2006. It has been more than 1,525 days since you have been taken. Your family waits for you, living in some strange limbo that is almost as bad as death, and so much worse than any other nightmare one could imagine.
I feel guilty when I think of you, Gilad. My son went to the army a year later than you, and already he has finished and a second has begun. I watched my son serve for three years – all while you were in Gaza, held there in silence and pain. I went to each ceremony and thought how blessed I was, how lucky, and each time, as I stood there watching so many soldiers, I thought of you, of where you are. I watched as my son went to war and prayed that each artillery shell they fired at Gaza would not hurt you. I prayed you would be safe…even more, I prayed and prayed and prayed that a soldier would turn some corner in Gaza, enter some building, and find you and bring you home.
I have no words I could offer your mother and father, your brother and sister, your grandparents, a nation that wants you home desperately. Sometimes, I am a child and I want to stomp my foot and demand that Israel send in troops and bring you home. But the adult in me knows that if this were possible, you would already be home.
Sometimes, I am a mother, and I want to demand my country, our country, do all it can, release all it can, to bring you home. But the adult in me, the Israeli in me, knows that this is not possible. Even if it were to actually bring you home, and there is no guarantee that it would, it means many others will die. Those who are released will see it as a victory, and plan more attacks. This has happened so many times in the past – released terrorists are caught again after they have killed again. It is a surrender to terrorism and so many others, soldiers like you, tell me that it isn’t the way.
Sometimes, I wonder if you know how many people are praying for you, if you have given up hope. In my weakest, most frightening of moments, I wonder if you were one of my sons, would you know that I would walk to the ends of the earth to try to save you – as your mother and father are doing. And if you were mine, would I have the courage, as your parents have had, to rise each morning and keep fighting for you, even against people like me, who believe we must find a way to bring you home without surrendering 1,000.
Gilad, I don’t even know if you know that today is your birthday, that you are 24-years-old. This is your fifth birthday in captivity. Each year we pray it will be the last, and yet this is the fifth. So much has happened to me in these past years – my daughter’s marriage, two children finishing high school and going into the army, we moved houses, bought cars and sold others. So much and still you remain where you are.
Others who went into the army with you, boys your age are getting married and starting their studies or traveling the world while you remain in limbo, a day older, but not a day happier. I don’t know if you are a day closer to coming home and perhaps that is the worst of all tortures.
Gilad, dear Gilad. You are an innocent in all of this. You chose to serve your country, demanded that they put you in a combat unit when you could have been assigned to something easier. You were on our side of the border when they crossed into Israel and grabbed you. You’d fired no weapons, done nothing wrong. I hope the strength that drove you to want to serve as a combat soldier is still with you, that you know that your parents, all Israelis, pray for you every day and long for you to come home.
And Gilad, I have to confess, too, that I don’t have a yellow ribbon on my car as many Israelis do. You probably don’t know about the yellow ribbons – they are a sign of missing you, a sign that so many think of you and have not forgotten you. I wanted to put one on my car, but it didn’t make sense to me because those that hold you will not care about my car.
I’ve put ribbons on my car in the past – but it was because I wanted to send a message to my government, our people and I knew that as the government and others saw the ribbons on my car and on other cars, we could bring about a change. If not a change, at least we were making a statement. An orange ribbon because I believed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would lead to more suffering and I believe it led to where you are now, the Lebanon War, and even the Gaza War.
The orange ribbon on my car was put there to beg the government not to take unilateral actions, not to surrender to world pressure. Destroying those communities in Gaza would not bring peace – and it didn’t; it would bring rockets on Ashkelon and Ashdod and Beersheva – and it did. It gave them the courage to try to kidnap an Israeli soldier – and they did.
I put a gold ribbon on my car to remind my government that Jerusalem is holy and that it is ours. I don’t know if the government will listen or surrender to international pressure. But at least the ribbon is there to remind people as they go about their lives.
And then your parents asked us to put a yellow ribbon on our car – so many did. But then I listened to what they were saying, where they were protesting. Your amazing parents walked, Gilad – for days and days – to remind the world where you are and where you belong. My heart broke for them, as it does so often and I thought of the yellow ribbon. Thousands joined them – each was a message to you, Gilad and it was a message that I agreed with. It was a message to our government too – and that was my problem.
I listened and knew that I could not put that ribbon on my car because it was tied to the message of bringing you home at all cost, releasing all the prisoners being demanded. If it were to tell Hamas enough already – release Gilad or they would suffer as they have never suffered before, I’d have put that ribbon on – and most of Israel would have as well.
But Hamas has demanded 1,000 prisoners for you, Gilad, terrorists and murderers who will kill again. They want us to release them to just beyond our borders, not to some foreign and distant shores, but to porous borders that can easily be crossed and violated. We can’t Gilad. As much as we want you home – the key to bringing you home does not rest in Jerusalem. The answer is not here. The question your parents pose to our government is wrong, the address is wrong. You aren’t in Jerusalem; you aren’t held by our government and the key to your release is in Gaza with you.
I’m sorry that my government continues to supply Gaza with electricity and water and fuel, while you remain a captive there. Most of all, I’m sorry that you aren’t home, contemplating marriage to some wonderful girl, planning out the greatest of all trips, or figuring out what you want to major in.
So Gilad, today you turned 24. There was no cake for you, no presents you could unwrap and marvel over and today again, I didn’t put the yellow ribbon on my car. I’m sorry, Gilad. Sorry that you aren’t home; sorry that the world doesn’t do enough to demand it. I’m sorry, Gilad – for the hypocrisy of the nations of the world, who are cowards enough to abandon a 19-year-old boy and sit in silence as the years pass.
The only birthday wish I can give you is that this be your last birthday in Gaza and that soon, very soon, you will be free to dream and fulfill all life should be offering you.