Freed Soldier Gilad Shalit Returns To Israel

Looking thin, weary and dazed, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home Tuesday from more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip. In exchange, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were released.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's look at this prisoner swap from the Israeli point of view. When Gilad Shalit stepped back onto his home soil, he appeared gaunt and he was walking slowly. He had been released by Hamas, to Egypt, and then he traveled to Israel. Before reuniting with his own family, Shalit was met at an Israeli air force base, by a beaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, it was a bittersweet moment for many Israelis who are welcoming the return of the soldier, but are also nervous about the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in the deal.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the deal.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Through translator) I know, well, that the pain of those families of those hurt by terrorists is very difficult. It is hard to see those evil people who murdered the loved ones, released before they served their time. But I also knew, in the current circumstances, this is the best deal we could achieve.

INSKEEP: And the upside for Israelis is this soldier is home. Reporter Sheera Frenkel is in Shalit's boyhood home in northern Israel. She's on the line. Hi, Sheera.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing?

FRENKEL: There's several dozen activists here, people that have been involved in the campaign to free Gilad Shalit that have been camped out here since last night. You also have his neighbors who come out wearing matching T-shirts that say welcome home, Gilad Shalit, we missed you. And there's a real sense of excitement here. They're blowing balloons, they've gotten flowers they want to lay at his doorstep. And people here seem very emotional about his homecoming, almost as if a member of their own family was returning home.

INSKEEP: Had his captivity and the effort to free him become a kind of cause over the last several years?

FRENKEL: Very much so. I think it's hard to underestimate, really, how – how important Gilad Shalit became to most Israeli households. His campaign became one of the largest in recent memory. At one point there were estimates that more than half of Israeli households had been involved in some way, in supporting the free Gilad Shalit campaign. Israel is a country that has a strong military ethos, one in which they believe that every soldier should be returned home to their family.

INSKEEP: How was he captured and how unusual was it for an Israeli soldier to be captured?

FRENKEL: Shalit was captured in June, 2006, on a cross-border raid in Gaza. It's not unusual for Israeli soldiers to be captured, it's happened – just around the same time he was captured, two Israeli soldiers were also captured in the north, by Hezbollah. What is unusual is for an Israeli soldier to be returned home to his family alive. He's the first soldier in Israel, in 26 years, to do so.

INSKEEP: Do people find it unusual, or even troubling, that so many Palestinians would be released for this one Israeli?

FRENKEL: No, it is the largest single swap made (unintelligible) more than 1,000 Palestinians that will be released for Gilad Shalit, one soldier, that's the largest ratio that we've seen so far. I think people are troubled, here, there's mixed emotions about those people being returned before their sentences are up. But at the same time, I think, at the moment, people are focusing on Shalit's return and you get the sense the sentiment in Israel is more of joy, of welcoming Gilad Shalit than it – at the moment, than it is for the worry over the release of the Palestinian prisoners.

INSKEEP: Now, of course you used the phrase, at the moment – as the days go on, the attention will turn back to where the peace process, or the lack of the peace process, goes next. What does this prisoner exchange mean for relations between Israel and Hamas, the group that had been holding – had been holding the soldier?

FRENKEL: I think that, as time goes on, we're already beginning to see(ph) murmurs of groups that are asking why Israel has released so many prisoners. And I think, as time goes on, there's going to be more and more people questioning whether Israel should continue to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for soldiers. In the long run, there's hope that this will create diplomatic ties that may eventually lead to Hamas and Israel making peaceful borders, eventually, in the future, some sort of dialogue through the Palestinian Authorities in the West Bank that will lead to peaceful times ahead. But that's the optimism at the moment, and I think this is a very optimistic moment. The pessimistic Israelis, and I do think, in the coming days, it will be the majority of Israelis, will say that this is a brief respite and that, likely, he will not be the last Israeli soldier that is captured by a neighboring state.

INSKEEP: Reporter Sheera Frenkel, thanks very much.

FRENKEL: Thank you.

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