September 14, 2006
Signs of life
I sat across a conference table at the Israeli consulate from KarnitGoldwasser, and she was livid
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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.