A few hours after embracing his son at the Tel Nof Air Force Base for the first
time in more than five years, Noam Schalit said Tuesday night that “today, we
have experienced the rebirth of our son.”
He described the emotional
reunion to reporters as he stood outside in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in the
Upper Galilee at the end of a whirlwind day.
Schalit: I thought I'd be held captive for years to come
Mitzpe Hila reacts joyously to first Schalit photos
“When I saw Gilad, I didn’t
say much. I just hugged him. And if I remember correctly, I said,
‘Welcome,” Noam recalled.
Since early that morning, when Noam, his wife,
Aviva, their son, Yoel, and daughter, Hadas, left their home to greet Gilad at
the Tel Nof Base near Rehovot, reporters, Mitzpe Hila residents, friends and
relatives waited anxiously for their return.
The road to the community
was lined with Israeli flags and signs that read, “It’s so good that you have
Police blocked off the gravel road leading to the Schalit’s
home in the hilltop village of some 150 families.
Next to the police
barrier, the community had set up a large TV screen so people could watch Gilad
leave Gaza, where he had been held since Hamas kidnapped him as he and his
fellow tank crew members patrolled the southern border on June 25,
The main TV stations set up make-shift studios along the road
leading to Mitzpe Hila.
As the hour drew near for Gilad to return home,
wellwishers lined the road holding white flower bouquets.
They cheered as his helicopter appeared in the
sky. They applauded, screamed and threw flowers as he arrived in a police
As he exited a van and walked down the small stairwell to his
home, dozens of people burst into song at the other end of the road. They waved
Israeli flags, danced and released white and blue balloons.
quieted down to hear Noam say that after a long, hard struggle, his son “opened
the door to the home he last left 1,941 days ago.”
“A long and exhausting
journey had been completed,” Noam said.
All in all, he said, his son
feels fine but suffers from minor wounds that were not treated while he was in
Initially, he said, Gilad was held in difficult conditions,
but the situation improved in recent years.
“Gilad is happy to be home,”
Noam said, but he added that because of the isolation he experience in
captivity, it is difficult for him to be exposed to people.
It’s been a
long time since Gilad had been able to talk to people in his own language, said
He expressed a hope that his son’s rehabilitation would happen
quickly and that he could soon return to normal life.
When Gilad last
left home in 2006, he was a shy, 19-year-old tank gunner, known only to his
friends and family.
He returned on Tuesday, at age 25, a national hero
and an internationally recognized figure, whose cause was known to and
championed by world leaders.
As they waited anxiously for him throughout
the day, his neighbors recalled the boy they knew and their five-year struggle
to bring him home.
Mitzpe Hila resident Avi Kam recalled how as a small
boy, Gilad learned to ride a bicycle on the same small road, where journalists
now crowded to await his return.
“It was very funny to see his attempts
to stay on the bike,” Kam remembered.
The tall gray-haired man milled
around with the reporters with a camera slung over his shoulder.
happiness we feel can not be described, it’s like walking on the moon,” he
Gilad was a “very shy boy who didn’t talk that much with adults,”
Kam said. “A week before he was kidnapped, I gave him a lift from the
intersection below to his home.” He was very quiet during the ride, he
What struck him on Tuesday, as he watched the interview Gilad gave
to Egyptian television, was how much Gilad spoke.
Gilad’s neighbor Elana
Levy said that it was very emotional to see him on television.
“I have a
river of tears that are bursting out. I cried for a hour, I could not stop,” she
“I knew Gilad since he was a baby. I felt that that he has
grown up. But you can see that he is very weak, that he has not been in
connection with people,” Levy said. “But his mind was clear. He gave such good
She recalled seeing him walking on the road in his uniform
during a visit home, shortly before he was kidnapped.
Soon after that,
she received a call at 6:30 a.m. from the chairman of Mitzpe Hila, who told her
that a tank had been attacked on the Gaza border and that they believed a
soldier from their community had been inside.
In the shocking days that
followed, both Levy and Kam said no one imagined it would take more than five
years until he returned home.
Kam said he thought it would not take more
than a year-and-a-half to free Gilad.
For more than five years, they held
on to their faith that he would return to them.
There was a point, toward
the end of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s term in office, when they thought that
he might be released, Levy said.
Since then, the situation seemed to
deteriorate and there were many sharp dips downward in the process, she
“It seemed like lately, we had almost lost faith,” she
The campaign to free Gilad had drawn on the parallel between his
story and that of missing airman Ron Arad, who was captured in Lebanon in 1986
and disappeared two years later after the government failed to conclude a deal
for his release, Levy said.
“The two stories started to seem so much
alike, that it sowed seeds of despair,” she said. “There were no negotiations.
No one delivered any message from him. The Red Cross did not see him.”
the midst of that sea of discouragement, suddenly she heard, like the rest of
country, the news of his pending release.
But it was only after the
cabinet approval last week, when she watched Gilad’s mother, Aviva, in the
protest tent in Jerusalem, that she believed Gilad was on his way
As Levy spoke, she paused to take phone calls from activists
wanting to know where to place flowers along the road.
The efforts the
Mitzpe Hila community of 150 families has made to prepare for Schalit’s return,
seem very little compared to his five years in captivity, she said.
experience, which she said was likely worse then death, united the nation of
Israel to fight on his behalf.
“He brought us all together. He helped us
believe in one thing, that we can do it,” Levy said.