The Shalit family home in Mitzpeh Hila turned into a site of pilgrimage this weekend. Hundreds of Israelis, many of whom traveled northward to spend the holiday in the north, turned up at the quiet, isolated community and stood for hours outside the house, looking at the colorful "Welcome home" signs for Gilad. Some snapped photos and went on their way, while others grabbed their video cameras and joined the large group of reporters in an evident effort to take part in the media circus.
The Shalits stayed inside the entire time, receiving guests and well-wishers. Most of this group comprised activists from the campaign for Gilad's release and volunteers who participated in the protest activities organized by the family and the campaign over the past five-plus years since his abduction. Visitors included friends and relatives, as well as the family of missing Druze soldier Majdi Halabi from Daliat al-Carmel.
There was also a delegation from the neighboring Arab community of Mi'ilya, whose residents hung signs welcoming Gilad at the entrance to the village and along the road between the two communities.
The Shalits, who only returned on Thursday from a 15-month spell in their "protest tent" across from the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, continued their preparations for Gilad's return. The yard, which had been neglected for the past year, looked better, and the windows and shutters - especially those in Gilad's bedroom - were opened occasionally. "Suddenly everyone's smiling, there's more light and more joy in the Shalit house and in the entire community," one neighbor said as she passed by.
On Friday afternoon Gilad's father, Noam Shalit, affixed an Israeli flag to the flagpole on the roof of the house and looked down at the journalists who leaped at the opportunity for such a symbolic, celebratory photograph. Until the day of Gilad's abduction, five a half years ago, the Israeli flag fluttered on the flagpole constantly, fading and then finally fraying. The Shalits did not replace it in an expression of their lack of trust in the state, whose cabinet did not approve a deal for their son's return. This weekend, family members said their trust in the state had returned.
Last night Noam Shalit went out to the reporters and visitors and stressed to them that, despite all the preparations, the family and Mitzpeh Hila were in no rush to celebrate. "It's not over until it's over," he said. "Only when we see Gilad in our hands will we know that all is behind us and that he is home. Right now, we are waiting for him."
He also made reference to various reports and analyses on the exchange deal. "I heard there are commentators and journalists who say the price was high, but we won't comment on that and will continue to wait for Gilad. We only want to thank all the supporters and the people who are coming. The people gave us strength from day one, and today also one can see that everyone is with us," Noam Shalit said. Family members noted that they have not received all the details of the exchange and anticipate additional briefings over the next two days.
Resident of Mitzpeh Hila said this weekend that the Israel Defense Forces is considering closing the access road to the Shalits' home on the day of Gilad's return and preventing reporters and curious citizens from approaching the house.
"The intention is to give Gilad and the family as much privacy as possible," Shimshon Liebman, head of the committee to free Gilad, said yesterday.
Members of the Shalit family confirmed that, at the army's request, they had packed a bag containing clothing, toothpaste, aftershave and other items in order to provide Gilad with the familiar smells of home immediately after his release to Israeli authorities.
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