Five years and almost four months after being kidnapped by Hamas to the Gaza Strip, Gilad Shalit finally returned home yesterday in a 10-hour journey that included numerous stops along the way.
The southern border
The lead-up to Gilad's return began at 5:30 A.M., when convoys of buses carrying the 477 prisoners to be exchanged for him left Israel's Ketziot and Hasharon prisons. By 7 A.M., they were at their destinations: The Kerem Shalom crossing into Egypt, the Ofer army base in the West Bank, and various police stations inside Israel for the Israeli Arabs and East Jerusalem residents. Then the wait began for confirmation that Hamas' military wing had handed Gilad over to Egyptian government representatives.
Meanwhile, Hamas was bringing Gilad from wherever he had been hidden to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. When he arrived, the first photographs of him on his way home were taken and flashed over the airwaves.
A few minutes after 10 A.M., Israel received official confirmation from the Egyptians that Gilad had crossed through Rafah into their territory and been positively identified. At that point, Israel began transferring the Palestinian prisoners waiting at Kerem Shalom into Egypt.
Getting from Rafah to Kerem Shalom normally takes only a few minutes. But the Egyptians detained Gilad for almost an hour, during which they made him give a television interview.
At 11 A.M., he finally crossed through Kerem Shalom into Israel and was taken to the nearby Amitai army base. At that point, Israel began releasing the prisoners held at Ofer.
At Amitai, Gilad first telephoned his parents, who were awaiting him at the Tel Nof airbase, and was fed a light meal. Next came an initial medical and psychological checkup, which concluded that despite being weak, he was in good enough health to be flown to Tel Nof.
He then changed out of the clothes Hamas had given him and donned an Israel Defense Forces uniform. At 12:30 P.M., he boarded the helicopter to Tel Nof.
For hours, journalists, army officers and staffers from the Prime Minister's Office had been waiting at Tel Nof for Gilad's arrival, watching the live footage of his release on giant television screens. When the first pictures of his transfer to Egypt were broadcast, the journalists - watching from the temporary media center erected in a tent just outside the base - fell silent for a moment, then burst into applause.
At 12:50 P.M., the helicopter carrying Gilad landed at the base. Though he had briefly lost consciousness during the flight, he had recovered enough to descend from the chopper on his own by the time it landed.
He was immediately welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. He saluted them and exchanged a few words: "Welcome back, Gilad, it's good to have you home," said Netanyahu; "We're proud of you, be strong and it will be all right," added Gantz. But he looked tired and weak.
Then, the three escorted him inside to be reunited with his family, who had left their house at 6:45 A.M. and been waiting at the base ever since. "I've brought your son home," the prime minister told Gilad's parents, Noam and Aviva, before leaving them alone with their son.
While Gilad was reuniting with his family, Netanyahu, Barak and Gantz held a press conference.
"Mutual responsibility isn't just a slogan; it's one of the cornerstones of our existence here," Netanyahu said. The decision to conclude the deal was hard, he continued, but he deemed it essential to bring back "someone who was sent to the battlefield by the State of Israel."
"I didn't want his fate to be like that of Ron Arad," he added, referring to the air force navigator who was captured in Lebanon in 1986 and has been missing ever since.
Netanyahu said he had two red lines for the deal: Hamas' top operatives had to remain in jail, and most of the freed prisoners must not return to the West Bank. Only when Hamas accepted these conditions did he agree to the deal, he said.
"Even if the price was reduced, it is still heavy," he acknowledged. "But Israel is different from its enemies. Here, we don't celebrate the release of murderers; here, we don't applaud those who have taken life. On the contrary: We sanctify life."
Barak said Gilad seemed "completely fine," adding pointedly, "His self-control could serve as an example for some of those covering his return."
Gantz said that "today closes the circle that began on June 25, 2006," when Gilad was kidnapped from among a force guarding the Gaza border. "The force's mission has been completed today," he added.
After about an hour alone with his parents, brother, sister and grandfather, Gilad was given a comprehensive medical exam. The doctors found that, while he wasn't malnourished, he was suffering from weakness, loss of fluids and a vitamin deficiency caused by lack of exposure to the sun. They briefly considered hospitalizing him, but ultimately decided his health was good enough to permit him to go home.
The psychologists and post-trauma experts said his emotional health also seemed good, later relating that he even told them they would be surprised by his stability. So at 4:10 P.M., a helicopter took off for the family's hometown of Mitzpeh Hila.
A cavalcade of police cars escorted Gilad from the improvised helipad near Mitzpeh Hila to his home. He arrived shortly after 5 P.M., some 10 hours after having left his cell in Gaza, and was greeted by the cheers of the waiting crowd. Hundreds of people - long-time activists for his release and ordinary citizens alike - shouted "The people of Israel live" and "We love you, Gilad." Many broke into spontaneous song and dance.
The singing, dancing, cheering and flag-waving continued for hours, long after Aviva Shalit had escorted Gilad inside with her arm around his shoulder, down the walkway that neighbors had strewn with white flowers. Most Mitzpeh Hila residents had taken the day off work, and many greeted Gilad in matching T-shirts printed with a line from a popular song: "How good it is that you've come home!"
The activists breathed an incredulous sigh of relief: "We did it!" But the champagne was broken out only about an hour later, after Noam Shalit addressed the crowd gathered at the corner of the family's street - the street itself having been closed off and guarded by hundreds of policemen and soldiers.
"Gilad has come home after a long, exhausting struggle," Noam said, emotionally. "Today, we can essentially say that we've experienced the rebirth of a son."
Afterward, the activists held their own celebration.
"Today, I cried like I haven't cried in a long time," said one, Gur Menashe of Kfar Sava. "But it was the weeping of someone sitting outside the door during a birth."
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