Last week, after learning that a deal for his son's release had finally been signed, Noam Shalit said the family would be at peace only when they saw Gilad walking down the steps to his house.
Yesterday, that day finally came: Gilad walked down those steps, waving to the assembled throng. And after welcoming his son back home, Noam Shalit emerged to give the waiting crowd - the activists who had labored to keep Gilad's captivity on the public agenda and the ordinary Israelis whose support for the deal pressured the government to sign it - the share in the moment that was their due.
"Gilad has come home after a long, exhausting struggle," Shalit said. "But in the end, we succeeded in bringing him home. He has returned, walked down the steps to the house and entered the door through which he left 1,943 days ago."
Shalit said his son felt well, despite mild injuries from untreated shrapnel wounds and damaged health from prolonged captivity without exposure to the sun. But despite his gratitude to all the activists who worked for this moment, Gilad himself would not address the crowd, Shalit said.
"Gilad is happy to be home," he said. "But naturally, it's hard for him to be exposed to the public, to a lot of people, given the fact that he was held in isolation for so many days and years and couldn't have contact with people," aside from his captors.
However, Shalit added, the helicopter pilot who brought him from Tel Nof circled twice before landing, so "Gilad looked down and saw the whole crowd and all the support he is getting." Now he must be rehabilitated, "and we hope this process will go as quickly as possible ... and that he can return to normal life."
Shalit said Gilad had been aware of his impending release, as he was allowed to listen to the radio, and sometimes watch television, though usually only Arabic broadcasts. As for his prison conditions, Shalit explained, Gilad said they were difficult at first but improved over time.
"Today we can essentially say that we've experienced the rebirth of a son," Shalit said emotionally. Upon meeting with Gilad, "I didn't tell him much, I just hugged him. If I remember correctly, I told him 'welcome' and gave him a big hug. Meanwhile, we've managed to sit down and eat a meal after a long and exhausting day that began early in the morning for all of us ....
"He hasn't told us much so far. His meeting with Aviva - there was a hug, tears, everything like that. I imagine he was surprised; he came out of some dark hole to this commotion. But I'm certain he appreciates the great support he encountered when he arrived here."
Shalit thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and acknowledged that the deal's price was high. "Yesterday we stood in the High Court of Justice facing many bereaved families and we certainly identify with them, understand their pain, and understand the price they are paying for Gilad's freedom," he said.
Then he left the crowd to its revels and returned to his son.
Eager to protect Gilad's privacy, the Shalits allowed few visitors in the house yesterday. But an exception was made for Christophe Bigot, the French ambassador, in honor of France's efforts on Gilad's behalf. Bigot bore a personal letter from French President Nicolas Sarkozy inviting Gilad, a dual French-Israeli citizen, to visit France. "Every citizen of France is rejoicing along with me that you have come home," Sarkozy wrote.
At 9 P.M., some five hours after Gilad walked down those steps, his brother Yoel and Yoel's girlfriend, Ya'ara Winkler, left the house, but declined to be interviewed. Shimshon Liebman, a leading activist in the campaign for Gilad's release, spoke with them briefly, but honored the family's wish for privacy. "They seemed happy, but I didn't want to pry," he told reporters.
The Shalits spent five long years in the public eye. Now, Liebman said, they deserve some time to themselves.
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