After more than five years in Hamas captivity, Gilad Schalit stepped into freedom on Tuesday and the warm embrace of a family that worked tirelessly for his release, and of a country willing to let hundreds of terrorists out of jail for his freedom.
Eleven hours after he set out from Gaza, and 1,941 days after he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid that killed two other soldiers near Kerem Shalom, Schalit returned to his home in Mitzpe Hila as hundreds of people lined the streets, sang and chanted “Gilad returned safely home.”
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Noam Schalit, Gilad’s father, who spearheaded both a national and international effort for his freedom, said, “Today we can say that we experienced the rebirth of a son.”
Schalit said his son will go through a “process of rehabilitation, and we hope it will be as fast as possible. With the help of the IDF’s medical personnel, we hope he will be able to return to normal life.”
The elder Schalit also acknowledged the pain felt Tuesday by the families of terrorist victims watching as the murderers of their loved ones were set free.
“For us, too, this swap is not easy,” he said. “We certainly identify with them and understand their pain, and understand the price they are paying for Gilad’s freedom.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has said that okaying this deal was one of the most difficult decisions of his life, greeted Gilad Schalit in the afternoon and said, “Today, I can say, on behalf of all Israelis, in the spirit of the eternal values of the Jewish People: ‘Your children shall return to their own borders.’ Am Yisrael Chai! [The People of Israel live!]”
As Schalit was making his way home, 437 prisoners – responsible for the murder of hundreds of people – were being welcomed as returning heroes in Gaza and Ramallah. Another 40 terrorists, considered to be the “highest risk” prisoners most likely to return to terrorism, were deported to Syria, Qatar and Turkey.
Israel Radio reported on Tuesday night that the US told Israel it was concerned about some of the Palestinian prisoners who were released.
State Department Mark Toner, while refusing to name which of the 477 terrorists caused the concern, said some of the prisoners being released posed a threat, and that the US had objected to their freedom.
Toner added that the US was not aware of any Palestinians who were denied release because of US concerns, saying the deal was “sovereign decision” on Israel’s part.
“The State of Israel is different from its enemies,” Netanyahu said. “Here, we do not celebrate the release of murderers. Here, we do not applaud those who took life. On the contrary, we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life. This is the ancient tradition of the Jewish People.”
Israel “will continue to fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said, and warned, “Any released terrorists who returns to terrorism – his blood is upon his head.”
The complicated and carefully choreographed swap began around 8 a.m., when a senior Egyptian Intelligence Ministry official crossed into the Gaza Strip and met Schalit. Israel received word that Schalit was alive but was still cautious and did not issue an official statement regarding his condition as long as he was still in Gaza.
At 9 a.m., the kidnapped soldier arrived at the Rafah crossing in a small, white pickup truck. He was taken out of the vehicle and accompanied by Hamas operatives who held his arms. There to oversee the operation was Hamas’s military commander, Ahmed Jabari, one of the most-wanted terrorists by Israel, who was caught on camera walking directly behind Schalit.
Schalit – looking pale and thin, and dressed in civilian clothes and a blue baseball cap – was then brought into a room on the Sinai side of the crossing where he was interviewed by Egyptian state TV.
The interview, not coordinated with Israel, delayed the swap by almost an hour, and infuriated Israeli officials. One official termed the interview “cruel, abusive and exploitative.”
Among the questions the interviewer, Shahira Amin, asked Schalit, were why no more tapes were released of him in captivity, and whether he would now be working for the release of more Palestinians prisoners “languishing” in Israeli jails.
“I’d be very happy if they were released, provided they don’t go back to fighting Israel,” Schalit replied to the latter question.
One government official said that while the interview was “delusional,” the coherent way in which Schalit answered the questions provided the first indication that his mental state was good.
Following the interview, a senior Egyptian official placed Schalit inside an armored car – because of the fear that terrorists would try to torpedo the deal by firing at the car – and brought him to the Rafah crossing.
The Egyptian official then drove Schalit the short distance to the Kerem Shalom crossing, near where he was kidnapped, and brought Schalit inside a building where he was met by Israel’s chief negotiator David Meidan, and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo.
After Schalit was identified by Meidan, the IDF Operations Directorate gave the order and the 477 Palestinian prisoners – who had already been placed on Red Cross buses – drove to Egypt, and from there to Gaza and abroad, or to the West Bank.
“I was the first Israeli to meet him,” Meidan said. “We were not able to talk much since he was still surrounded by Egyptians, but I believe that we will have plenty of time to talk later.”
Schalit was transferred to an IDF armored vehicle that was modified to serve as an ambulance and was driven to the nearby Amitay Base.
There he spoke by phone to his parents. He also underwent an initial medical examination that found he was fit to travel. He showered, ate a banana, donned an IDF uniform and – after five years – was given a pair of glasses. Schalit was briefly questioned by a military psychologist.
The IDF pinned on the left lapel of his uniform the military insignia from the Second Lebanon War, which broke out about three weeks after he was abducted, since throughout his captivity he was still considered an active soldier.
Schalit was then put on a helicopter and flown to the Tel Nof Air Force Base near Rehovot.
Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz met him at the helicopter.
“Forgive me for being weak,” Schalit told Netanyahu, who gave him a hug.
“It’s OK,” Netanyahu said. “You are very strong. It’s good that you came, we’ve been waiting for you for many years.”
Gantz, after receiving a salute from Schalit, told him, “Be strong, it will be okay.”
Schalit was then taken to a private meeting with his family, a large bowl of Bamba snacks waiting for him on a table. At Tel Nof he underwent a number of medical tests, including a series of X-rays, and an ultrasound imaging. He was also checked by a dentist.
Schalit’s medical condition was described as good overall, though he was found to be suffering from a number of wounds sustained to his leg and hand during his abduction. Following the medical examinations, Schalit reboarded the helicopter with his family and flew to Mitzpe Hila.
Netanyahu, in his brief address after greeting Schalit, acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the day. “Citizens of Israel, today we are all united in joy and in pain,” the prime minister said.
Netanyahu said that in carrying out the negotiations, he was guided by two principles: to bring Schalit back, and to try to minimize dangers to the country from the release of terrorists.
“I saw the need to return home someone whom the State of Israel had sent to the battlefield,” the prime minister said, against the backdrop of an old F-15 fighter plane that graces the entrance to Tel Nof.
“As an IDF soldier and commander, I went out on dangerous missions many times. But I always knew that if I or one of my comrades fell captive, the government would do its utmost to return us home, and as prime minister, I have now carried this out,” he said.
“As a leader who daily sends out soldiers to defend Israeli citizens, I believe that mutual responsibility is no mere slogan – it is a cornerstone of our existence here.”
Netanyahu said he had two demands during the negotiations to minimize the danger of the prisoner release: “First, that senior Hamas leaders, including arch-murderers, remain in prison. Second, that the overwhelming majority of those designated for release either be expelled or remain outside Judea and Samaria, in order to impede their ability to attack our citizens.”
When Israel received signs that Hamas, which at first refused to meet those demands, was showing flexibility, Netanyahu said he had to make a decision.
“I know very well that the pain of the families of the victims of terrorism is too heavy to bear. It is difficult to see the miscreants who murdered their loved ones being released before serving out their full sentences. But I also knew that in the current diplomatic circumstances, this was the best agreement we could achieve, and there was no guarantee that the conditions that enabled it to be achieved would hold in the future.”
Then, Netanyahu made reference to Ron Arad, who was captured 25 years ago, saying he wanted to ensure that Schalit did not share Arad’s tragic fate.
Barak, who followed the progression of the swap in the early morning from Tel Nof, spoke after the prime minister and said this was “an emotional day for Schalit, IDF soldiers and officers, and the entire Jewish People.”
“The heart breaks” with the families of the terrorist victims, Barak said. Soon there will be a need to draw up a new policy for dealing with prisoner swaps, Barak said, something he has said in the past was necessary so Israel will not pay such a high price.
The next stage of the prisoner swap will take place in two months, when Israel releases 550 more Palestinian prisoners of its choice. A senior defense official said the 550 would be mostly petty criminals and Palestinians serving light sentences for terrorism- related activity.
In addition, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) will be keeping an eye on the 110 Palestinians released to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, to ensure they do not renew their terrorist activities.
After greeting Schalit, Netanyahu met in his Jerusalem office with Gerhard Konrad, the German mediator who for years was intimately involved in the Schalit negotiations. The prime minister thanked Konrad and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for their help. Earlier, Konrad met with President Shimon Peres who praised him for creating “the foundation of the agreement.”
Goodwill greetings poured in throughout the day from around the world,
including from the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the US.
US President Barack Obama was pleased that Schalit has been freed and
wants Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward resuming peace
negotiations, the White House said on Tuesday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters during Obama’s bus tour
in North Carolina that it was not yet clear how Schalit’s release would
affect the Middle East peace process but that the US leader was
“personally pleased” by the development.
Reuters contributed to this report.