The Gilad Shalit affair culminated in an epic finale yesterday after an emotional roller coaster that finally saw the soldier back home with his parents in Mizpeh Hila.
Following strict guidelines, the press was kept as far away as possible from Shalit. The images that TV viewers were able to glimpse of the storied soldier were limited to a series of short video clips filtered by the Israel Defense Forces, who carefully guarded the privacy of Shalit and his family.
These are the images that will be remembered from October 18, 2011: The first, from the Rafah Crossing, drew a worried sigh from many Israelis, who saw the acute gauntness of Shalit. Then there was the "interview" - part investigation, part abuse by the Egyptian TV. Then was the salute by Shalit - already in uniform - before the prime minister and chief of staff. A touching array of images followed: the short hug with his father; the close-up of Gilad in the car on his way home, holding his hand to his heart; and finally, the image of the smiling soldier, walking down the steps leading home.
Shalit crossed the border from Gaza to Egypt through Rafah, and at 10:22 A.M., Israelis saw him for the first time, led by Egyptian security, with Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing in Gaza, following behind. From there he was transferred by the Egyptians to Israel, via the Kerem Shalom crossing. Shalit was then taken to the adjacent Amitai military base, where he showered, changed out of the shirt he was given by Hamas into a new IDF uniform with his new sergeant major rank, and spoke with his parents on the phone. Shortly after, he took off for the air force base in Tel Nof to meet the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff and his family.
Shalit felt ill at ease during the flight, but was well enough to get off the helicopter unaided, receive a hug from Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. He saluted the chief of staff and heard him say: "Well done, Gilad, be strong and everything will be okay."
The IDF spokesman's office and the Government Press Office photographed Shalit, capturing the hug with his father, Noam Shalit, who urged him, "Come to mother." The meeting with his mother was off limits to the cameras.
One must admit, Netanyahu honestly earned his credit. The decision to free 1,027 prisoners - among them, 280 murderers - is a brave move, and the prime minister is well-aware that he may pay the price. The media ritual that followed was relatively short and inevitable. Still, one doubts if any other prime minister in such a situation would have chosen to skip the ritual. Netanyahu said everything he needed to say: "Mutual responsibility isn't a slogan," "We insisted on our demands," and "We didn't want Gilad's fate to be like Ron Arad's." He also added a touch of pathos - "The Israeli people lives" - but he couldn't quite refrain from self-promotion: "Two and a half years ago, when I was elected..." And, of course, "Leadership, and yet more "leadership."
Barak chose a somewhat ironic and commentary-like stance: "Gilad looks absolutely fine and demonstrates self-control that could serve as an example even to some of those covering his return."
Gantz remained businesslike, careful to distance himself from any sort of celebration. We've come full-circle, he claimed, but he added, "The security challenges aren't over." After all this, the mediator, David Meidan, received a pat on the back from Netanyahu and a strong hug from Barak.
Gilad's homecoming was delayed for a short time after doctors considered admitting him to a hospital for further check-ups, but in the afternoon another helicopter took off, this time to take the soldier and his family to Mizpeh Hila.
At exactly 5:06 P.M., Gilad walked into his home, waving briefly to the large, excited crowd in the house. An hour later, Noam Shalit emerged and faced the press. "We feel that we've experienced our son's rebirth," he said, thanking the prime minister, the IDF and the Movement to Free Gilad Shalit.
Radio in captivity
Shalit told his family that in the last two years and eight months he was allowed to listen to the radio, and sometimes even watch TV in Arabic. This fact probably surprised many Israelis yesterday. Noam Shalit said his son "still has slight wounds because of inadequate medical treatment in captivity".
He meant the wound on Gilad's left hand sustained when he was kidnapped; it was clear Gilad couldn't move it with ease. Shalit also suffers from a lack of exposure to the sun and might be malnourished.
Noam Shalit added that the conditions and treatment in captivity were severe in the beginning but improved in recent few years.
In yesterday's clips, Gilad seemed to have trouble walking and looked weak and very thin. More details about his treatment will probably emerge; in any case, Hamas says it will air footage proving that the prisoner was treated according to the rules of Islam.
In the initial reports the IDF defined Shalit's condition as "good" but later IDF doctors revised it to "satisfactory."
Still, in the interview and later at the Kerem Shalom crossing, Shalit showed that he was focused and aware. "You're the one who replaced Hagai Hadas," he said to Meidan, the Israeli mediator. Later he said to the officers: "I knew you would be pleasantly surprised, because I heard in the news when I was in captivity that you were worried about my sanity."
Shalit's return signaled the end of a week rife with symptoms of deep national turmoil exceptional even in Israel. Yesterday the return of the kidnapped soldier caused euphoria, but in the long run the deal might put at risk many Israelis. Some of the released prisoners will most likely use their newly acquired expertise and resume terrorist activity.
On the other hand, even if it's difficult to remain calm while viewing the smiles accompanying the terrorist Ahlam Tamimi, who ferried a suicide bomber to murder 15 civilians at a Jerusalem restaurant, the release of the prisoners is still far from being a major national problem. Yoram Cohen, head of Shin Bet, believes that the danger can be "contained."
Another question concerns the position of Hamas in Palestinian society and its return as a meaningful actor in the West Bank after four years of aggressive repression by the Palestinian Authority. If in the long run Israel can't create a stable status quo against Hamas in Gaza, this could be cause for concern.
It was a long, grueling day that ended with authentic happiness. At least for the time being this is a happy ending of a story that could have had a sad twist.
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