TEL AVIV — After five years and four months as a captive of Hamas in Gaza, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is free.
Skinny and pale, swimming in an ill-fitting checked shirt, his face framed by a large black collar, Shalit was accompanied across the border from Gaza to Egypt by boisterous crowds, and, in an unexpected move, was quickly transferred to an Egyptian studio where he was interviewed on live TV.
The unexpected move caused outrage in Israel, where the media agreed to sign a covenant promising to grant the former prisoner and his family a certain measure of privacy. The Egyptian government seemed bent on reaping the maximum amount of positive exposure for its mediation of the final negotiations that led to Shalit’s release, even at the risk of angering Israel.
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Still, this first vision of Sargent First Class Shalit after 1,941 days was greeted in Israel as a miraculous apparition.
At the first sight of him, the entire country seemed to exhale. Anxiety about Shalit’s condition had grown into a national preoccupation as the date of his release approached. Shalit’s next-door neighbor, Bat-Chen, 24, said, “Thin, pallid, who cares? It’s Gilad! It’s his voice! He’s moving his hands. He’s walking. It’s totally him.”
Even his responses in the Egyptian interview provoked assuagement. “He’s fine. His responses are reasonable. He’s sane,” a breathless correspondent reported on Israel Army Radio. Told by the Egyptian interviewer that thousands of Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails, Shalit replied, “I will be happy for them to be released if they don’t return to fight us. I very much hope that this deal will advance peace.”
There was only one glitch in the finely tuned sequence that saw 477 out of 1027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails swapped for the soldier, who was captured in June 2006 by a Hamas commando that blew open his tank, while on patrol on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. Two female prisoners, refusing a return to Gaza, demanded to remain in Egypt and were eventually granted refuge. A further 550 prisoners are expected to be released in two months.
Following a brief medical examination on the southern border, Shalit was outfitted with new fatigues, new glasses and a bottle of mineral water, and given a phone to call his parents. From there a helicopter transported him to the Tel Nof air force base. Upon landing, he saluted the prime minster and army chief of staff, and was then escorted into a private room where his immediate family had been waiting since the early morning.
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It has been 26 years since Israel saw a formerly captive soldier return home alive, and the feeling of relief was palpable, with most of the country glued to television screens and applause heard emanating from random windows as Shalit was first seen.
Not only the Egyptian government was eager to claim credit for the prisoner exchange. Meeting Noam and Aviva Shalit, who were seeing their son for the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I’ve brought your son back.” In subsequent comments to the press, Netanyahu underscored the theme, saying, “ever since my election as prime minister two and a half years ago, I have done everything possible to bring Gilad Shalit home. I kept my promise.”
Netanyahu also used the highly charged moment to address families of victims of some of the Palestinian prisoners released, who have been vocal in their anguish in recent days. A last-minute Supreme Court petition to prevent the deal going through was rejected late last night, and the prisoners were readied for release.
In various Palestinian cities public expressions of joy at the release of prisoners turned into a street festival. In Gaza Hamas leaders claimed credit for the release of renowned terrorists, “martyrs to the cause of liberation.” Numerous Hamas supporters interviewed on television expressed their desire for further kidnappings of Israeli soldiers, with the aim of liberating more Palestinian prisoners. No one mentioned the possibility of renewed peace negotiations, which are scheduled to formally recommence in the coming week.
While Hamas kidnapped and held Shalit and, finally, secured his exchange, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared at a rally in Ramallah’s Manara Square, greeting the recently released prisoners. In an uncommon twist, Ramallah was adorned in the green flags of Hamas and the Fatah-affiliated president addressed the crowds.
Nonetheless, Abbas is expected to attempt to harness the current elation to his own advantage. Though he has vowed not to run for reelection, Abbas’s political fortunes have grown since last month’s bid to gain recognition at the United Nations, and he appears to be cementing his status as the only Palestinian leader capable of leading the nation to sovereignty and international recognition.
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