As Israel watches, Gilad Shalit comes home

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as freed soldier Gilad Shalit is embraced by his father, Noam, at Israel’s Tel Nef Air Force base shortly after Shalit’s release from more than five years of captivity, Oct. 18, 2011. (GPO)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — 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 Tuesday in the hours after his release.

The first interview with the released soldier was broadcast on Egyptian Nile Television even before he returned to Israel. In the interview, Shalit seemed overwhelmed, looking down at the table rather than making eye contact with the interviewer and taking deep breaths, apparently to calm himself.

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

Shalit, 25, said he was treated well, and that he knew that people were working to free him. He said he had access to media while in captivity and that he had feared he would be held “for many more years.”

It was the first footage of Shalit since a short video released by his captors in 2009 proving he was alive.

Soon after his return to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces released a photo showing Shalit dressed in an IDF uniform and looking thin and pale, walking slowly and slightly hunched over. Soon after a preliminary medical check at an army base in southern Israel, he had a long telephone conversation with his parents. A photo showed Shalit smiling as he held the receiver.

Video later in the day showed Shalit walking quicker and looking more at ease. An Israeli army spokesman said a physical showed that he was in good health.

: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as freed soldier Gilad Shalit is embraced by his father, Noam, at Israel's Tel Nef Air Force base shortly after Shalit's release from more than five years of captivity, Oct. 18, 2011. (GPO)

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.

“Hello Gilad, it’s so good to have you home,” Netanyahu told the freed soldier.

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

At the Air Force base, Shalit underwent more extensive medical checks. He spent several hours there, longer than had originally been planned.

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 in Mitzpe Hila, a town in northern Israel.

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 Abbas.

Gilad Shalit is greeted by cheering crowds as he finally returns to his family home in Mitzpe Hila, Israel after five years in captivity, Oct. 18, 2011. (IDF Spokesperson)

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 late Monday 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 the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Palestinian who shot her was freed Tuesday.

Unshaven, with white stubble on his cheeks, Ben Yishai, 55, said that his family has not recovered from Shoshi’s death. They are all U.S. citizens, and Shoshi was born in New York before moving to Israel at age 5. He said his five other children talk about Shoshi every day.

“The man who killed Shoshi should be given the death penalty, not freed to go home to his family,” Ben Yishai told JTA 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 Israel’s daily Haaretz. “The Shalits are noble people and it’s hard to imagine their suffering over the past five-and-a-half years. 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, the released prisoners laid a wreath on the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 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. Just weeks after applying for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, which gave him a boost in popularity, Abbas has been sidelined by the swap. Hamas, by kidnapping an Israeli soldier, was able to get Israel to release more than 1,000 prisoners, including many who had actually killed Israelis.

“The big winner is Hamas because the deal is so one-sided,” Brig.-Gen. Shlomo Brom, an expert on the Palestinians at the Tel Aviv University security institute, told JTA. “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 Tuesday’s deal would lead to talks between Israel and Hamas or a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In Shalit’s hometown, Mitzpe Hila residents prepared to greet Shalit with a human chain at the entrance to the community. His room has been repainted, and the family’s garden, which was not taken care of during the past 15 months while the family lived in a protest tent in Jerusalem opposite the prime minister’s residence, has been cleaned up.

Shalit is expected to spend the next few weeks close to home. He will receive psychological assistance and spend time with his family.