'It's like walking on the moon'

Members of Gilad Schalit's community, Mitzpe Hila, rejoice as he returns to Israel, expectantly await his arrival home.

Residents of Miztzpe Hila 311 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Residents of Miztzpe Hila 311
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
When Gilad Schalit was a small boy he learned to ride a bicycle on the same small road, where journalists crowded on Monday afternoon to await his return to Mitzpe Hila.
"It was very funny to see his attempts to stay on the bike," recalled Mitzpe Hila resident Avi Kam.
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The tall gray haired man mulled around with the reporters with a camera slung over his shoulder. Like most residents of Mitzpe Hila, he wore a T-shirt that said, "It's so good that you've returned home."
Kam said, "the happiness we feel can not be described, it's like walking on the moon."
Gilad, Kam recalled, was a "very shy boy who didn't talk that much with adults."
"A week before he was kidnapped I gave him a lift from the intersection near his home," said Kam. He was very quiet during the ride, Kam said.
What struck him, 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 said.
"I knew Gilad since he was a baby. I felt that like he grew up. But you can see that he is very weak, that he has not been in connection with people," she said.
"But his mind was clear. He gave such good answers," she said.
She recalled seeing him walking on the road in his army uniform during a visit home, shortly before he was kidnapped in June, 2006.
It was only a short time after, Levy recalled, that she received a call at 6:30 a.m. from the head 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 shocked days that followed both Levy and Kam said, no one imagined that 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.
Throughout the five years, they held on to their faith that he would return to them.
There was a point, toward the end of former Ehud Olmert's term in office, when they thought that he might be released, Levy said.
Since then, she said, the situation seemed to deteriorate and there were many sharp dips downward in the process.
"It seemed like lately, we had almost lost faith," she said.
The campaign to free Gilad had drawn on the comparison between his story and that of missing airman Ron Arad, who was kidnapped 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," she said.
In the midst of that sea of discouragement, suddenly she heard, like the rest of country, news of his pending release.
But it was only after the cabinet vote, last week, when she watched Gilad's mother Aviva in the protest tent in Jerusalem, that she believed Gilad was on his way home.
As she spoke, she paused to take phone calls from activists wanting to know where to place flowers along the road, to mark Gilad's return.
The efforts the Mizpe Hila community of some 150 families has done to prepare for his return, she said, seem so little compared to his five years in captivity, she said.
That experience, she said, which she believed was worse then death, also 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.
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