A fish and a shark: a captured Israeli's fifth-grade parable

Supporters see hope in printing a tale in which enemies make peace.

Joshua Mitnick
Prisoner swap: Kids at a gallery in Nahariya, Israel, enact roles from a story written by captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit as a child, which is being published to help get him back.
Joshua Mitnick
Shark Tale: Illustrations for a book by Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit on the friendship between a shark and a fish.
Ariel Schalit/AP
Israelis gathered next to a portrait of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on Aug. 28, the captured soldier’s 21st birthday.
Joshua Mitnick
It was Lee Rimon’s idea to commission illustrations in order to turn a recently discovered story by captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit into a children’s book. She is exhibiting the illustrations at her gallery.

A shark, a fish, and an unexpected discovery are about to add a new title to the vast literature on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"When the Shark and the Fish First Met" is an unlikely addition to the canon – written as it was by a fifth-grader little intent on turning his deep-sea characters into metaphors for the crisis.

But nine years after he penned the tale, its author, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, has gained international attention. Captured by Hamas 18 months ago, he has become something of a pawn in negotiations over a prisoner swap between the militant group and the Israeli government.

Israeli proponents for a deal hope printing Corporal Shalit's grade-school story will keep pressure up for a deal – and serve as a message for peace.

"In the heart of the Pacific Ocean swam a small and gentle fish. Suddenly, the fish saw a shark who wanted to devour him," begins the story that was found by his old teacher during a spring cleaning.

Now, a collection of illustrations that alternate between the ominous and the humorous have been commissioned to accompany the story, which will be published this week.

At the Edge Gallery in northern Israel, where the pictures are on display, gallery owner Lee Rimon says, "We are trying to figure out a way to keep the boys in the public memory."

She hatched the idea of the book with other volunteers from a nonprofit dedicated to freeing Shalit and two other soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were abducted by Hizbullah militants two weeks later in July 2006.

At the gallery over the weekend, a circle of preschoolers played the role of the ocean by blowing bubbles and waving blue and green streamers, while a pair of first-graders enacted the story of how two ocean adversaries become friends.

And when Ms. Rimon asked the kids to raise their hands if they ever felt scared like the small fish or destructive like the predatory shark, there were volunteers on both counts.

"What Gilad saw, as a kid, without understanding, is that in all of us there is a little bit of the shark and a little bit of the fish," says Rimon. "We are liable to think that Gilad is the fish and they are the sharks. But from their perspective, Gilad is the shark."

Egypt has mediated intermittent negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a prisoner swap for Shalit's release during the 18 months since his capture. Just recently, Israel convened a discussion on relaxing criteria to release prisoners, a sign of incremental progress.

The Israeli daily newspaper Maariv on Sunday reported that Israeli negotiators are mulling the release of Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah politician and militant leader sentenced to five life terms on murder charges.

When asked about the possibility of Israel releasing prisoners directly involved in killings, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio over the weekend, "We need to do everything to bring the troops back to the State of Israel."

Rimon and the others involved with the nonprofit hope that the children's book will propel some movement on the swap.

In Shalit's chance meeting between the shark and the fish, the two ocean dwellers abandon the roles of hunter and hunted in favor of hide and seek. But when their mothers are told about the new companionship, they reproach the children and forbid further meetings.

After a year of obeying, the two meet again, and the shark comes with a suggestion: "You are my enemy, but perhaps we can make up?" Ultimately, the parents are made to accept the friendship, and "from that day on, the sharks and the fish live in peace."

The book's illustrations are the works of members of the Israeli Illustrators' Association and were initially commissioned for an exhibition at Rimon's gallery. At the end of the month, the art exhibit is scheduled to move to other cities in Israel.

"The story looked so current and also so naive. It's a utopia that we wish could happen, and especially in the Middle East we wish we could have friendship," said Noga Schimmel, the chair of the illustrators association. "It's an optimistic message because we hope Gilad will come back. It's got to be positive, we want a positive end."

Shalit's father, Noam, volunteered that neither he nor his wife Aviva remembered the story. He said the couple was surprised at the discovery because their son took more of an interest in math and science. The parents checked with children's literature experts to see if the story was cribbed from somewhere else, but they responded that they could not find anything similar.

The elder Shalit has criticized the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for missing opportunities to secure his son's release and has even taken unconventional steps like making an appeal through the Palestinian press and speaking by telephone to Hamas spokespeople in the Gaza Strip.

"The story highlights another element in the personality of Gilad," he says. "We don't have any hopes that it will advance his release, but maybe the message will be picked up on the other side."

The story already has an Arabic translation, and the project sponsors said that eventually they'd like to find a way to publish and distribute the book in the West Bank and Gaza.

"I was very moved by the story.... There is pain on both sides. It's important that it should be read in the place where he was kidnapped," says Maha Sweid, an Israeli Arab who translated the story into Arabic.

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