Held For 5 Years, Shalit Will Need Time To Adjust

The Israeli soldier being released in the prisoner exchange with the Palestinian group Hamas is Gilad Shalit. The head of Israel's largest support group for captured soldiers knows better than most what Shalit will be experiencing.

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Peter Kenyon referred there, of course, to the way that things are perceived 180 degrees differently on the other side. So let's look at this swap from the Israeli side. An Israeli army spokesman told a news conference, today Gilad Shalit is with us. After a deal the AP calls the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, he's back on Israeli soil. And the first TV images showed a man thin and pale, in a gray shirt with a black baseball cap.

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A few minutes after his release, Shalit struggled to catch his breath and said in an interview that it was uncomfortable to see so many people at once after not seeing them for so long. He also expressed his desire to work for peace, between Israel and the Palestinians.

INSKEEP: Reporter Sheera Frenkel spoke with a man who says he has words of advice for Shalit. He's a former Israeli soldier who underwent a similar ordeal.

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AVIVA SHALIT: (Foreign language spoken)

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Aviva Shalit, the mother of captured soldier Gilad, stood in front of dozens of cameras Monday night to make one of her final pleas to the press. Quite used to the attention, she had one request for the media - to allow the family some privacy now.

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SHALIT: (Foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: It seems unlikely, for thousands of journalists have swarmed the Shalits' small village in the north of Israel. By this evening Gilad Shalit is expected to return to his childhood home here, after five years in captivity. And the adjustment to normal life will be a difficult one, says Dr. Mickey Zeifa.

He would know. In 1973 Zeifa was captured by the Egyptian army and held for six weeks. He calls the experience traumatic, in every way imaginable, but adds that his release from captivity was just as difficult.

DR. MICKEY ZEIFA: (Through Translator) You have the trauma of captivity and then the trauma of returning to normal life. To return to freedom is a shock as well. In the case of Shalit, where for years he was not in control of anything, what he ate, when, to suddenly be a free man again is something that is not that easy to adjust to.

FRENKEL: Today, Zeifa is the spokesman of a group calling itself Awake at Night. It's a support network of nearly 300 former Israeli soldiers who have spent time in captivity under enemy hands. Some were held for just a few hours, others for a few years. All of them, says Zeifa, suffered a mental and physical breakdown during their captivity. He has some advice for Shalit.

ZEIFA: (Through Translator) They have to look around the world and get used to the idea that they deserve to be free. When you are in captivity, there is a mental and sometimes physical torture. You are denied everything and kept in solitary. Your captors are trying to break you down in every way possible.

FRENKEL: It's still unclear what kind of treatment Shalit received in Gaza. Palestinian officials there say that Shalit was cared for well during his captivity, and that they have a tape documenting his time in Gaza that proves he was never mistreated or abused. But they say that the Red Cross, along with international NGOs and diplomats, were denied access to Shalit because they could not be trusted.

Israeli officials say Shalit will need a thorough medical examination once he is on Israeli soil. At the least, they say, he underwent the mental torture of five years in captivity largely in solitary confinement. Zeifa says Shalit's family must be prepared to help him transition back to normal life.

ZEIFA: (Through Translator) They need to give him love and support, but most importantly, the time to adjust back to his life, to surround him with quiet and patience. They also need to be prepared to listen. He must share what he underwent - until now he's had no one to speak with about his ordeal.

FRENKEL: Shalit is likely unaware of his celebrity status in Israel, says Zeifa. In the years he was held in Gaza, he became a household name - one that many Israelis feel a kinship with. The Shalit family has recognized the broad efforts that were made to return their son. But they say that what he needs most now is peace and quiet.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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