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Signs of life

I sat across a conference table at the Israeli consulate from KarnitGoldwasser, and she was livid

by Rob Eshman

September 14, 2006 | 8:00 pm

On Sept. 6, the day Israel announced it was lifting its air and sea blockade against Lebanon, I sat across a conference table at the Israeli consulate from Karnit Goldwasser, and she was livid.

"I know Resolution 1701 is starting to be implemented," she said. "That means the last Israeli soldier will leave Lebanon; Israel will stop the blockade; Israel will do whatever the implementation says for it to do."

Goldwasser's voice became a bit more strained, the voice of someone on the verge of screaming or tears. "But the preamble to 1701 says the captured soldiers should be sent back home. And no one is asking: What about them?"
 
Goldwasser was referring to the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on a July 12 raid into Israeli territory. Those captured soldiers are Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, Karnit's husband. Since the afternoon of July 12, when an area commander came to visit her with the news, she has devoted herself to freeing the two, as well as Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in Gaza 17 days earlier.
 
She has traveled across Europe and America, met with heads of state and anybody else she thought could help and spoken out on behalf of the captured soldiers. She wants to make sure that they are not forgotten.

To even think that Israel would forget about the three seems ludicrous. After all, Shalit's capture in Gaza led to an ongoing series of Israeli reprisals. Israel caught and imprisoned a quarter of the Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet in retaliation.

The capture of the soldiers in the north provoked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch a second Lebanon War that led the Mideast to the brink of a regional conflagration. The two reasons for the war: to stop Hezbollah missiles from landing in northern Israel by disarming or removing the terrorist group within southern Lebanon and to force the return of Goldwasser and Regev.

But the international politicking and larger strategic aims of the war could easily overshadow the fate of three lone soldiers, Karnit knows. And as if she needed a reminder that captured Israelis can languish for years in enemy hands, Lebanese TV last week broadcast a video showing captured Israeli airman Ron Arad, taken prisoner by Hezbollah 21 years ago. Today, Arad's whereabouts are still a mystery.

So Karnit refuses to let the world -- including her own government -- forget. "One of the goals of the war was to bring him back," Karnit said, "which means the war hasn't ended. Not for me."

Karnit, 30, and Ehud, 31, grew up in the same northern Israeli town of Nahariya. They attended the same schools, though they didn't get to know each other until nine years ago, just prior to entering university. They have been together ever since. Their first wedding anniversary will take place Oct. 14.
 
Both are pursuing master's degrees in environmental engineering at the Technion. Karnit, who is on a full scholarship, is in her final year -- though she has put her studies on hold. Udi -- Ehud Goldwasser's nickname -- is midway through his course of study.

I asked Karnit to describe her husband's qualities. The hardness disappeared from her voice, and I noticed, suddenly, that she is a beautiful young woman, her brown hair pulled back to reveal strong but delicate features. Picture Justine Henin-Hardenne, the Belgian tennis champion, without the racquet but with just as much, if not more, resolve.

"His qualities?" she said. "How many hours do we have?"
 
She described her husband as a man who loves books, culture and movies, "but good movies," she said. Then she told a story.
 
Several years ago, Udi and Karnit were walking home with friends on Yom Kippur. A heated discussion raged over whether, in the future, they should leave Israel to live elsewhere. Everyone else agreed that they had to stay.
 
"We are educated; we serve in the army," Karnit said. "If we leave, who will stay?"
 
Udi said everyone should leave. Not for good but for a few years to experience and learn from what the world has to offer.
 
"I got so mad at him," Karnit said. "I said, 'Udi, why do you always have to go against the flow?' He said, 'Karnit, someone always has to offer the opposite point of view. Someone should always think differently. This is the way you have a deeper discussion.'"
 
I asked Karnit about her husband's politics. Right? Left?
 
"He didn't want to vote for either," she said, with a smile. "He voted for the Greens. He voted for nature."
 
At the time he was captured, Goldwasser was patrolling a section of road between two community centers near Moshav Zar'it in the Western Galilee.
 
Early on the morning of July 12, Hezbollah sent a barrage of rockets into northern towns as a diversion, then infiltrated across the international border and fired antitank rockets at Goldwasser's unit, killing three soldiers and abducting him and Regev.
 
A tank sent to retrieve the soldiers triggered a large explosive device, and four more soldiers were killed.
 
Karnit was visiting with friends when the regional commander arrived. It was Udi's last day of reserve duty, and she was planning for his arrival. "Usually they come to tell you when someone is dead," she recalled. "I was out of the room. I walked in and saw the look on my friend's face. I told her I will never forget that look."
 
The commander told Karnit that the army didn't know what happened to her husband. But of the seven dead soldiers, one was still unidentified. The army needed a DNA sample to help identify the last body.
 
Karnit drove with her mother and army personnel from the couple's apartment near the Technion back to her home in Nahariya. Ehud had been in the reserves for a month. In preparation for his expected return that day, Karnit had washed all their laundry and even cleaned his toothbrush. As she searched home for any genetic trace of Udi, she felt in her heart it was unnecessary. "I knew he was not dead," she said, " because he is my soul."  
In the meantime, Udi and Karnit's families began to gather.
 
Udi's father, Shlomo, a merchant ship skipper, was working in Namibia. His mother, Miki, was at their current home in Durban, South Africa. She read of the capture of two Israeli soldiers on the Internet and began crying. She didn't know then she was crying for her own son.
 
The family didn't want Miki to hear the news alone.
 
"But she called me," recounted Karnit. "And I told her Udi was home from the army and in the shower. It was very hard to lie to her."
 
Shlomo arranged for the chief rabbi of Durban to come and give Udi's mother the news.
 
By 11 p.m., the army had brought in a doctor to obtain a DNA sample -- Udi's brother's blood. Then word came that the seventh body had been identified. It wasn't Udi.
 
"At that moment," Karnit said, "I understand I'd been through the worst part. It was several hours thinking he might be dead. I realized then I wasn't going to wait for someone else to bring him back. I once promised him that if something bad happened, I was going to do anything and everything I could to help. I wasn't going to be the one to believe people who tell me that everything was going to be OK; I was going to make sure everything would be OK."
 
Karnit immediately gathered phone numbers. She contacted the families of the other captured soldiers. "I told them, now we are all one family." She asked Ori Slonim, a prominent Tel Aviv attorney who worked to free other captive soldiers, to take their case. She and the families have mobilized a network of friends and supporters.
 
The effort is not just daunting but expensive. Family and friends have funded travel expenses, and they paid out of pocket costs for the Aug. 31 rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square at which 100,000 Israelis turned out to show support for the soldiers.
 
While the Israeli government covers some expenses, Goldwasser said she can't wait for the bureaucrats to take their time deciding where she can go and when. "The moment they kidnapped Udi, two words vanished from my vocabulary," she said. "Patience, because I don't have any patience. And time, because I don't have any time. He is over there waiting, and I have to keep him in minds of people in Israel and abroad." The families of the captured created a Web site, www.banim.org, to provide information and allow for PayPal donations to help them in their efforts.
 
At an American Jewish Congress event last week, Iranian Jewish businessman John Farahi pledged a large sum to pay for the Goldwasser expenses for the next six months. But to the extent our cash is a symbol of support of our communal effort to redeem the captives, yesterday I logged on and contributed, too.
 
Karnit herself has become an unwavering spokesperson on behalf of her husband and his fellow captives. In the course of her international travels, she has met with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as representatives of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the International Red Cross.
 
Jackson said he has received assurances that Goldwasser, Shalit and Regev are alive, but he offered no proof. The others said they would do all they could. Karnit wants more than expressions of support: "So many people say they want them back," she said. "To say it is very easy. But I need the one man who starts to act."
 
Early on, she and other family members met with Prime Minister Olmert. "He looked me in the eye and said he would deal with this like they were his sons," Karnit said. "And I'm asking him now, if they were his sons, would he do exactly the same? Sometimes, I feel like he just says it."
 
Karnit criticized Olmert for not appointing a special crisis team until two weeks after the capture. But mostly, she remained dumbfounded that he would lift the Lebanon blockade without asking for any progress on the captive situation.
 
"My husband and Eldad are perhaps in Lebanon, perhaps alive, perhaps injured," she said. "We don't know anything. We didn't get any sign of life from the three of them, nothing at all. It's unacceptable that everyone wants to help the Lebanon government and no one wants to help us. I want Olmert to say, 'You want a normal life, give us a sign of life.'"
 
The war that Olmert ostensibly launched in part to free her husband left Karnit with deeply mixed feelings. "I was very shocked," said Karnit. "I was in the north of Israel; I was the one who gets the shelling. I didn't know what to think. I know they want to provide me as a citizen of Israel with quiet. And I know they want to provide me as Udi's wife my husband. But then I saw on the television all the casualties. And it was very hard for me to see the faces and know they're dead."
 
Make no mistake: She holds Hezbollah and the Lebanese government responsible for her husband's fate. In interviews with Arab media, the family has made that clear. But she knows her power to persuade Hezbollah is much more limited than her power and her right as an Israeli to challenge her government.
 
Indeed, Israel's response to the abduction has spurred an agonizing domestic debate there. While the country's stated policy is not to negotiate with terrorists, in fact, the country has a long history of prisoner exchanges and a surfeit of prisoners with which to bargain.  
Some 8,800 Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli jails, according to Israel Prison Service statistics. Ninety-six of the prisoners are women and 274 are under 18 years of age. About 70 percent of the convicts were labeled as "having blood on their hands," and between 500 and 2,000 have neither been charged nor tried.
 
In 2004, Israel swapped 435 prisoners in return for kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the return of the bodies of three soldiers killed during an ambush along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Among the released were two pro-Hezbollah agents whom Israel abducted within Lebanon to use as bargaining chips in the effort to secure the release of Arad.
 
"If Israel will negotiate, why not frankly say so and conduct negotiations quickly and with flexibility," wrote Gideon Levy in Ha'aretz. "And if [terrorist] Samir Kuntar had been released from prison in an earlier deal, after 27 years in an Israeli prison, maybe Hezbollah would not have kidnapped Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. These questions must be answered honestly and courageously, instead of with bravado and bragging."
 
Others say every uneven exchange increases the likelihood of more kidnappings. Israeli leaders need to balance the deep-seated IDF ethos that "no soldier is abandoned on the battlefield," with a dry-eyed security calculus. Call me overly empathetic, but listening to Karnit, it's hard to imagine a prime minister who can say, in your case, no negotiations.
 
In the middle of the debate stands the family of the captured, in the middle of the battle stands Karnit. For her, neither the strategy nor the goal are complicated.
 
"I really want them to do a negotiation because then I will know my husband's condition," she said. "I'm not a politician. I'm just his wife. And like any wife, I want my husband. And I am going to do anything to bring him back. I am going pay any price to bring him back. Anyone in my situation would do the same. Because he is my soul mate."
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