On the Scene: Post-deadline predicament

Some neighbors were concerned that the spotlight would dim, causing Gilad Shalit to be forgotten.

noam shalit, yoav appel  (photo credit: Yoav Appel [file])
noam shalit, yoav appel
(photo credit: Yoav Appel [file])
Twelve days after Cpl. Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, routine has begun to return to his small hometown community of Mitzpe Hila. The string of satellite trucks that blocked the street are gone. The journalists, photographers and TV crews who waited patiently outside the family's home have mostly left - the food wrappers and cigarette butts dotting their neighbors' gardens the only reminders of media interest in the Shalit family's pain, grief and longing for the return of their loved one. The soft-spoken, eloquent Noam Shalit has withdrawn into the privacy of his home since the passing of the deadline for the ultimatum issued by his son's captors' that Israel release Palestinian prisoners by 6 a.m. Tuesday or "face the consequences." Neighbors call the family quiet and insular. Within their home, accompanied by relatives and close friends, parents Noam and Aviva, brother Yoel and sister Hadas awaited any news this week of their son and brother. Reporters' requests to interview the family late this week were mostly turned down. "Perhaps I can convince Noam to talk," said Betzalel, his brother-in-law, appointed media liaison for the family. He couldn't. Shalit showed the first signs of strain Monday, calling Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit's comments about Israel restoring its level of deterrence "delusional." Neighbors confirmed Shalit was angry. He felt the government was using his son's kidnapping as an excuse for a large-scale operation in Gaza. "That's his form of protest," said a neighbor, referring to Shalit's silence. "He doesn't have anything new to say," said Ilana Levy-Zrihen, chairwoman of the community's residents' association, who has become its informal spokesperson. "He doesn't have the strength." Mitzpe Hila is small and quiet. It has picturesque vistas and cool breezes, even in summer. On a clear evening, the sun can be seen setting over the Mediterranean to the west. Residents described their shock at having been thrust into the spotlight. "For 25 years, Mitzpe Hila was anonymous," said Levy-Zrihen, the Shalits' next-door neighbor, who, like them, has lived in Mitzpe Hila for 18 years. "A rural community with a mere 150 families living peacefully...[so small that it doesn't even have] a grocery store or medical facilities. Suddenly seeing ourselves in headlines all over the world is very frightening." Indeed, as she spoke, her phone rang incessantly with requests for information. When news of the kidnapping first broke, she said, no one here knew how to deal with the sudden public interest. "The press complained that we weren't being helpful. That's just not true. We were simply in shock. We didn't know what to do." WITH THE rapid shifting of focus to IDF operations in Gaza, Levy-Zrihen fears that Shalit's kidnapping would soon disappear from the public eye. "We feel we have to do something [to prevent this from happening]," she said. "We can't be apathetic, or he'll be forgotten." On Wednesday, schoolchildren spread a large banner, reading "Gilad - We're waiting for you to come home," across two poles near the town's entrance. More signs would be printed, she said, along with bumper stickers and posters for the local district's buses. This active approach contrasts the more restrained one being taken by the Shalits. Some neighbors questioned the wisdom of the family's not creating more of a fuss, suggesting that this might cause the spotlight to dim and their son to be forgotten. When Tuesday's 6 a.m. deadline passed, Shalit emerged from his house only to water his garden. "We felt we had to make a lot of noise," said Levy-Zrihen. "Out of respect for the family, however, we waited quietly on the sidelines. We believe the family knows what it's doing - that their restraint is noble. And we want to support them. If they were out on the street demonstrating at the top of their lungs, we would be, too." In the meantime, residents said they have no choice but to resume their daily routines. "There's nothing else we can do," said resident Sasson Horesh. "We have to [get on with our] work. The family is now being left to deal with the problem and the pain. No one knows how long this will go on, and that's hard for all of us." Along with a few other residents, Sasson helps maintain the community's small synagogue. Every night since the kidnapping, he gathers local youth to recite Psalms. He, too, worries about Gilad's situation being pushed to the sidelines. "I think the media need to come every now and then, and if the family doesn't want to speak, then at least [they should speak] with neighbors, so this issue won't be forgotten," he said. AMONG THE guests at the Shalit home this week were Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and billionaire Stef Wertheimer, who recently sold his company, Iscar, where Shalit is employed. A family on vacation from New York also stopped by to show support, as did a group of students. But as the week passed, fewer visitors arrived. The excited shouts of toddlers playing at the nearby kindergarten were audible again, now that the rumbling sound of TV crews' generators was no longer present. Levy-Zrihen reiterated her complaint about this state of affairs. "Everyone's interested in Ashkelon," she said, referring to Kassam rockets that landed there this week. "And though my heart goes out to [the residents of Ashkelon], there is one kid now in a situation no one - particularly a parent - can imagine, and we need to do everything we can to bring him home."