Gilad Shalit - Abdallah Shema - October 2011
Gilad Shalit riding a bicycle outside his home in Mitzpeh Hila yesterday. Photo by Abdallah Shema
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Hamas' claims that Gilad Shalit was not tortured during his captivity by the organization should be treated with skepticism, his father, Noam Shalit, said yesterday.

"Gilad experienced difficult things, at least in the initial period [of his captivity]," Noam Shalit said of his son's almost five-and-a-half years imprisonment in the Gaza Strip, adding, "but it's true that he was treated better after that."

Noam Shalit emerged yesterday evening from the family home in Mitzpeh Hila, in the Western Galilee, to speak with reporters who have been camping out on the street corner since Gilad Shalit returned to this small, rural community following his release on Tuesday.

The journalists, representatives of both local and foreign media, make up most of the population of the village these days. The slightest sign of change or movement on the street shifts the reporters and photographers, who are waiting for even the tiniest bit of news about Shalit, into high gear.

The Shalits are very critical of the interview with Gilad on Egyptian television immediately after he crossed into Egypt on Tuesday. Noam Shalit told reporters that his son had termed the interview unnecessary and inappropriate, and had said that it was forced on him.

Noam Shalit said Gilad felt Israel bombing the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. "It's not a picnic to be in a building while above you there are F-15s and F-16s bombing [from above]," he said.

Noam Shalit said his son was aware of much of what was going on in Israel during his captivity. "He had a radio and there was reception for Army Radio, Israel Radio and Radio Darom," he said.

He said that his son's physical condition was improving. "Gilad is feeling better and his health is being monitored by physicians. He has gone out walking a bit, rode his bicycle and played ping-pong near the house," his father related. "He has met up with friends from the community, friends from school. He eats and has an appetite. His sleep patterns haven't stabilized completely, but he does sleep. He needs his time and needs to adjust."

Yesterday afternoon Shalit rode his bicycle for about 40 minutes, an Israel Defense Forces officer at his side the entire time.

At around 11 A.M. Wednesday, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, he went out with his mother, Aviva, and a number of army medical officers, for a walk of about 15 minutes. When he returned he met Eva Drori, a neighbor, and asked about her son, Ben, who is around his age.

A police cruiser was in the middle of the road in order to block access to the media. While Shalit was outside, military police officers stood in a line in order to give him privacy as he walked around the village.

The path leading to the family's home is still blocked to traffic, and police officers prevent would-be visitors from approaching, on the orders of the army and the Israel Police.

Family members emphasized that Shalit wants to go out and to meet with people, but is still finding it difficult to cope with crowds after his long period of isolation.

Noam Shalit said that although his son is doing reasonably well under the circumstances, he is not yet ready to be interviewed by the media. "Let's not forget that Gilad is still an IDF soldier and must adhere to the policies of the IDF Spokesperson's Office," he said.

"Gilad is not a person with requests and demands. He's going with the flow," Noam Shalit said. "We're giving him everything we can at home."

Noam Shalit said the family's first priority is supporting Gilad and as such has been less focused on the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah. "Naturally, we are not busy with the holiday itself, rather with welcoming Gilad and the start of his rehabilitation. I think this is the first holiday that we can really call a happy holiday," he said.

President Shimon Peres is scheduled to visit the Shalits in Mitzpeh Hila next week. His office confirmed the plans but said that no date had been set as yet.

Relatives and close family friends continue to stream to the Shalit home. Noam's parents, Zvi and Yael, came for a visit during the two-day holiday. Zvi, Gilad's grandfather, took part in the reception at the Tel Nof air force base on Tuesday.

Avraham Waknin of Givat Ze'ev, near Jerusalem, came to the home on Wednesday, wrapped in a golden prayer shawl, to blow the shofar. "He hasn't celebrated our holidays for six years already," Waknin said. "I felt it was important for him to hear the shofar, and I brought him one of my own shofars as a gift."

Well-wishers continued to congregate near the Shalits' home over the holiday, coming from all over the country. Some had their pictures taken near the house as a souvenir. Some were disappointed at not being able to get close enough to see Shalit, and a few even politely asked the police officers "just to bring him a bouquet of flowers, or chocolates." Children who came with their families also sought to share in the experience. One said he wanted to see how the soldier "who was with the Arabs for five years" looked.

Most of the activists from the public campaign to free Shalit, who had been on hand to welcome him home on Tuesday, were no longer at Mitzheh Hila.