Shalit, 1940 days in captivity, dismantle protest tent
Shalit supporters dismantling the family’s tent in Jerusalem. Back in their home in Mitzpeh Hila, police had trouble staving off the swarming public. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Text size

KEREM SHALOM - The official Israel Defense Forces' declaration that Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit had departed the Gaza Strip and been positively identified left the company of officer-school cadets guarding the outer perimeter of the border crossing distinctly underwhelmed. They didn't rush to one of the television screens showing the first footage of a cadaverous-looking Shalit taking his first steps of semi-freedom, under Egyptian sovereignty. They didn't even smile.

"We feel happiness in our hearts, only we don't show it," said one of them with unmistakable irony, before taking advantage of the short line at the refreshment trailer to buy himself a cold drink.

Shalit's release yesterday was a three-ring circus - and that was just on the Israeli side. The Palestinians also had three rings of their own.

The carnival began at daybreak at the so-called Steel Memorial, some three kilometers north of the border, which was the closest the Israeli media was allowed to get to the real action. For the next five hours, all the main television channels focused on that one spot in the Negev Desert - a bizarrely symbolic setting indeed. The futuristic monument was built to commemorate the 180 IDF soldiers of the Steel Division who were killed in the Six-Day War, while fighting the Egyptian Army in order to capture the Strip and northern Sinai. It consists of 295 concrete columns, each topped with a metal fragment from a tank. Originally the monument was erected in what was Israeli-controlled Sinai; it was dismantled and relocated in 1982, before Israel returned the area to the Egyptians. Twenty-nine years later, Shalit, the gunner of a tank that was attacked and disabled a short distance away, was being brought home through the very same battlefields.

It was hard, however, to shake off the sense of failure, in contrast to the victory commemorated by that monument. The IDF Spokesman's Unit set up a podium full of flags, all the officers arrived in their best uniforms, and a body-language expert gave the senior officers advice on how to appear before the cameras. But none of that covered up the sour taste all around.

Shalit's capture five years and four months ago was a colossal operational blunder, at just about every level - from the tank crew, all the way up to GOC Southern Command. The fact that he was held mere kilometers from Israel's borders, and not located or rescued in a special operation, was another failure, this time of the intelligence services. His eventual release was a victory primarily for the other side's negotiators.

Yesterday, the IDF tried to compensate for all this with a well-orchestrated and executed exchange of prisoners on the border, but even this operation was overshadowed twice during the morning.

The first "ring" in the circus was the incident, at the Kerem Shalom crossing, involving 33-year-old "terrorist temptress" Amana Mona, who in 2001 befriended 16-year-old Ophir Rachum via the Internet and enticed him to a "romantic" meeting in Jerusalem that ended with his abduction and murder by her accomplices. Israel had insisted that Mona - who during her incarceration became the hard-line leader of the female Palestinian prisoners at Sharon Prison - be barred from returning to her West Bank home. She was thus supposed to be deported to Gaza, but at the crossing, Mona, a secular Fatah member, refused to go to the Islamist Hamas-dominated Strip. Under the eyes of officials of the International Red Cross, she held up the exchange for two hours, refusing to board the bus bound for Gaza, but eventually had to comply with the signed deal. Another woman terrorist, Wafa al-Biss, who intended to blow herself up at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva in 2005, and who was apprehended at the Erez Crossing with explosives, also refused to return to Gaza for personal reasons, and her request was granted, with Egyptian authorities agreeing that she could stay in their territory.

The second sour note of the morning - was the contrived "interview" on Egyptian Television, forced upon Shalit by orders of the regime in Cairo, eager to broadcast their dominance of the Arab world. How the IDF had tried, pleaded with the Egyptians to avoid those premature pictures. They argued that Shalit had suffered enough, and didn't deserve being used as propaganda tool on his first morning of freedom. But as one IDF officer admitted, "We can't really complain, the same thing is being done on our side."

Initially, the IDF had planned to hand Shalit over to his family, after an initial medical examination, with minimal ceremony and fuss.

"I don't know why any VIPs have to be there," said one senior officer, while the exchange was being planned. But apparently they had to be there.

"It's a national event," said one defense official ironically, "like a birthday, and everyone needs a slice of the cake. So there's the IDF chief of staff's slice, and the defense minister's slice and the prime minister's slice."

Indeed, each of them had teams of spokespeople constantly updating reporters of their movements, where they were when the news came through, when they arrived at Tel-Nof Air Force Base, when they met the Shalit family, and so forth.

The third ring of the circus was naturally at the Shalits' home in Mitzpeh Hila, where police had to set up blockades to stop members of the public from spontaneously swamping the family.

The Palestinians' rejoicing was more exuberant, but the fact that they were also forced to divide festivities between three locations, Ramallah, Gaza and Cairo, underlined the fact that they may have gained the release of 1,027 prisoners, but there are still 7,000 others in jail, and their people are no closer to statehood. Furthermore, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' wooden, expressionless face at the ceremony in Ramallah, where he was forced to share a podium with Hamas leaders, emphasized the rift within the Palestinian nation, which is as deep as ever.

In the end Hamas got its 1,000 prisoners, the Egyptians reaped the PR dividends, and Israelis were left with the bittersweet and voyeuristic pleasure of participating in the Shalit family reunion.