Gilad Shalit returns home, Israelis watch his every move

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jerusalem  |  It seemed that all of Israel breathed a sigh of relief when Gilad Shalit returned to Israel after being transferred from Hamas captivity in Gaza into Egyptian custody.

After more than five years of campaigning for Shalit’s release, and seeing little of him other than the same images again and again, Israelis were eager for the fresh images of Shalit broadcast Oct. 17 in the hours after his release.

The first interview with the released soldier was aired on Egyptian Nile Television before he returned to Israel. In the interview, Shalit seemed overwhelmed and took deep breaths, apparently to calm himself.

“I’m very emotional, I haven’t seen people in a long time,” Shalit told anchorwoman Shahira Amin. “I look forward to meeting people, talking to people … and not doing the same things all day long.”

In the first footage of Shalit since his captors released a short video in 2009 to prove he was alive, the 25-year-old said he was treated well, that he had access to media while in captivity and that he had feared he would be held “for many more years.”

Gilad Shalit is greeted by cheering crowds upon returning to his family home in Mitzpe Hila. photo/courtesy of the idf

Upon returning to Israel, Shalit had a preliminary medical check at an army base in southern Israel, and then had a long telephone conversation with his parents.

Shalit then was flown to Tel Nof Air Force base for an emotional reunion with his family and a short meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shalit saluted the prime minister, who smiled and hugged him.

“Sorry I am so weak,” Shalit told Netanyahu.

En route to Tel Nof, Shalit reportedly felt ill and subsequently underwent a longer-than-expected series of medical tests.

Major Israeli TV networks reportedly have agreed to respect the Shalit family’s wishes for privacy by keeping a certain distance away from the family home.

As Shalit made his way home, Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, including more than 200 who had been involved in attacks that killed dozens of Israelis. Some returned to their homes in the West Bank; others were deported to the Gaza Strip or Egypt. Tens of thousands of Palestinians attended a rally in Gaza celebrating the prisoners’ return.

At the Beitunia crossing point into the West Bank, some newly freed prisoners called for kidnapping more Israeli soldiers to free the remaining Palestinian prisoners in jail. The released did not include Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fatah activist who is seen as a possible replacement for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar also said that as part of the deal, Israel had agreed to lift the siege on Gaza that was imposed after Shalit was captured in June 2006 and deepened after Hamas took sole control of Gaza. An Israeli government spokesman would not comment on the report.

The last obstacle to the prisoner exchange deal was removed Oct. 17 after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that it would not intervene to stop the release. Several families of victims killed in terror attacks had petitioned the court not to allow the deal to go forward.

One of those was Yitzhak Ben Yishai, whose daughter Shoshi, 16, was killed 10 years ago in a drive-by shooting in Jerusalem. The Palestinian who shot her was freed Oct. 18.

“The man who killed Shoshi should be given the death penalty, not freed to go home to his family,” Ben Yishai said with tears in his eyes. “This is giving in to terrorism.”

But polls showed the majority of Israelis were in favor of the deal despite the heavy price.

“Each of us shares Noam and Aviva Shalit’s joy with all his heart,” Yehuda Ben Meir, director of the National Security and Public Opinion Project of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “But the joy is mixed with great sorrow — sorrow over the release of hundreds of terrorist murderers, who by law and justice should have ended their lives behind bars.”

In the West Bank, Abbas welcomed the prisoners back, saying, “We thank God for your return and your safety. You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of the homeland.”

Abbas is seen as being weakened by the prisoner exchange deal, which Israel negotiated indirectly with Hamas. By kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Hamas was able to get Israel to release more than 1,000 prisoners, including many who had killed Israelis.

“The big winner is Hamas because the deal is so one-sided,” said Brig.-Gen. Shlomo Brom, an expert on the Palestinians at the Tel Aviv University security institute. “The loser is Mahmoud Abbas because he has become irrelevant, which is the worst thing for a politician.”

Brom said he did not believe that the prisoner exchange would lead to talks between Israel and Hamas or a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Shalit returned to Mitzpe Hila, his hometown in the western Galilee hills near the Lebanese border, on Oct. 18; then, for the first time since the spring of 2006, the five members of the family had dinner together and Shalit slept in his own home.

Shalit is expected to spend the next few weeks close to home with his family. Doctors and at least one psychologist arrived at the Shalit residence to coordinate further tests.

On Oct. 18, as Gilad went on a walk with his mother, Aviva, his father, Noam, told reporters: “Gilad feels good. He needs quiet; we’re trying to get back to normal.” He also asked that the reporters give the family some space.

The street where the Shalits reside will remain blocked by police for the coming week.

France’s ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot, visited the Shalit family Oct. 18 to deliver a letter from President Nicolas Sarkozy. Shalit has French nationality through his grandmother.

Bigot told reporters that Shalit told him that while in captivity he had watched television, mainly nature and sports programming, including the Tour de France. “I invited Gilad to be guest of honor at the next Tour de France,” Bigot told the French news agency AFP. contributed to this report.


For more of this week’s stories on Gilad Shalit, click on the links below:

Local groups, leaders gather to celebrate Shalit’s release

Notorious terrorists among prisoners set free in Shalit deal

Shalit deal shows Israel’s resilience and moral strength, not surrender