Freed Israeli Soldier Receives Hero's Welcome

  • Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, (second right), walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (second left), Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, on Tuesday. Schalit returned home  from more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.
    Hide caption
    Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, (second right), walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (second left), Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, on Tuesday. Schalit returned home from more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.
    Israeli Defense Ministry/AP
  • Palestinian prisoners cross from Egypt into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after they were released from Israeli jails in a landmark prisoner swap.
    Hide caption
    Palestinian prisoners cross from Egypt into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after they were released from Israeli jails in a landmark prisoner swap.
    Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
  • Shalit's parents, Aviva (center) and Noam (right) Shalit, prepare to board a helicopter in their home of Mitzpe Hila to reunite with their son.
    Hide caption
    Shalit's parents, Aviva (center) and Noam (right) Shalit, prepare to board a helicopter in their home of Mitzpe Hila to reunite with their son.
    Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
  • People in Mitzpe Hila watch the first televised images of the 25-year-old Shalit, who doctors said shows signs of malnutrition, following his release.
    Hide caption
    People in Mitzpe Hila watch the first televised images of the 25-year-old Shalit, who doctors said shows signs of malnutrition, following his release.
    Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
  • A Palestinian prisoner is held aloft in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He was one of 477 freed Tuesday, with 550 more to be freed in several months.
    Hide caption
    A Palestinian prisoner is held aloft in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He was one of 477 freed Tuesday, with 550 more to be freed in several months.
    Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
  • Supporters of Shalit celebrate in Mitzpe Hila. The Israeli tank crewman was captured in 2006 during a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants.
    Hide caption
    Supporters of Shalit celebrate in Mitzpe Hila. The Israeli tank crewman was captured in 2006 during a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants.
    Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
  • A convoy of Israeli Prison Service buses arrives at Israel's Ofer prison in the early morning hours to transport Palestinians prisoners.
    Hide caption
    A convoy of Israeli Prison Service buses arrives at Israel's Ofer prison in the early morning hours to transport Palestinians prisoners.
    David Vaaknin/Getty Images
  • A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release in Ramallah. A total of 27 women were set free Tuesday.
    Hide caption
    A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release in Ramallah. A total of 27 women were set free Tuesday.
    Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

1 of 8

View slideshow i

In a dramatic day that took him from captivity in the Gaza Strip to his home village in northern Israel, soldier Gilad Shalit was freed Tuesday after more than five years as a prisoner of Palestinian militants.

His release was cause for celebration in Israel, and nowhere more so than in Mitzpe Hila, where he was welcomed by several hundred neighbors and close friends who had long pressed for his release.

In exchange for Shalit, Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of involvement in the deaths of Israelis. Nearly 500 of the Palestinian prisoners were released Tuesday, and a second batch will be free in about two months.

In Mitzpe Hila, the crowd first caught sight of Shalit on a big-screen TV erected on the street corner in front of his house. The TV announcer says that Shalit had landed on Israeli soil, and the crowd here immediately broke into chants of, "Gilad has come back home safe and sound."

But it was several hours before Shalit made his way to his childhood home, a quiet village nestled in the hills of northern Israel. The 130 families that live in Mitzpe Hila are close-knit, says Zoar Bar-Shalom, who lives down the street from the Shalit family.

"I'm speechless," said Bar-Shalom. "We've been waiting for this for a long time and finally it's happening, so it's just so overwhelming."

Also outside his home were the supporters of the Free Gilad Shalit campaign. Dozens of activists say they campaigned ceaselessly for the release of Shalit since he was captured in June 2006. He was seized by militants who dug a tunnel from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and snatched Shalit from his military post.

Ohad Kerner has never met Shalit, but he says that freeing him was his "life's work."

"Until now I have only seen posters of him," he said. "I have ... campaigned for him, but now to know the man himself is home is overwhelming."

Kerner says he felt a sense of relief wash over him as soon as he knew Shalit was on Israeli soil, a sense he feels is shared by many across Israel.

"I think we are a country that feels this unity naturally. It was very difficult, and we have had a lot of disappointments. But we persevered," he said.

Israelis Faced Difficult Choice

Still, the deal to release Shalit was a difficult one for some Israelis because the price was the release of so many Palestinians serving life sentences for terrorist attacks. Kerner says he can understand the pain of families who have watched those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones go free, but he still thinks it was the right thing to do.

Peleg Salouk and his girlfriend, Linor Elichai, also thought Israel had no choice but to bring Shalit home. Salouk says he felt a great deal of solidarity with Shalit.

"I joined the same unit as Gilad," Salouk said. "To me it was important. I was very proud to serve in the same unit as him. I wasn't scared because I saw how people cared for him."

At sundown, the couple stood arm in arm, waiting for the convoy of vans carrying the Shalit family to make its way up the hill to their home.

Many in the crowd threw white roses at the van, as they craned to catch a glimpse of Shalit sitting between his mother and father. As the vans drove past, Elichai broke down into tears.

"I'm emotional. I'm touched. I put myself in his shoes," Elichai said. "It's just the most, the most emotional thing."

The Shalits said in a statement to the press that Gilad was happy to be home and was recovering from his captivity. They asked only to be allowed to return to their normal, quiet lives.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: