A new battlefield

Noam Shalit, a year after his son's return, puts his tenacity and determination into politics.

Noam Shalit 521 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER)
Noam Shalit 521
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER)
A two-story cottage in a tiny village on an unnamed street in northern Israel seems eerily quiet and largely unrecognizable. Only the family’s name on a plaque outside the house confirms that this modest dwelling is indeed the home of a young man whose face for five years adorned car bumpers, flags and the front pages of newspapers in Israel and abroad. The media has long decamped, no longer searching for interviews or small morsels of news. Gawkers can no longer reach the house, thanks to a heavy metal gate that bars their entry to the community.
The tiny village of Mitzpe Hila (population: 600) seems unremarkable other than the spectacular view of the Lebanese mountains. Yet, it was a just a year ago, on October 18, that 25-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit returned home here after 64 months of captivity by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Four days before the first anniversary of his son’s homecoming, 58-year-old Noam Shalit greets a visitor for a rare interview. The Shalit family has kept mainly mum about the solder’s captivity, but Noam, an engineer by training, is running in the Knesset elections in January on the Labor Party ticket, and has decided this interview may help his campaign.
With one of the more recognizable faces in Israel with – and with many considering him, along with his son, true national heroes – Noam's entry into the Knesset on the Labor list seems assured. It appears that all he needs to do is show up for a few TV interviews and rallies, and then wait for Labor primaries so party members may give him their overwhelming approval. But he takes nothing for granted; his chances will be largely based on how high he is placed on the Labor ticket.
Politically inexperienced, Noam still ponders whether he needs to raise money and how much, how many rallies he should organize for himself, and, most importantly, whether Labor voters will in fact think him worthy of being a Knesset member. He has decided that he will “not go crazy” by running around the countryside seeking votes; rather he will adopt a “minimalist” campaign.
And his campaign will be clean. “I don’t plan to attack others and say that I am the best of everyone,” he asserts to The Jerusalem Report. Nor will he involve his son in his political efforts. “I won’t bring Gilad to my rallies, I will not say that Gilad thinks this way or that.” If however Gilad wishes to participate, Noam will welcome his presence at his side.
Until Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich contacted Noam in January, inviting him to meet with her, he had not thought of entering the world of politics. A Labor member since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the elder Shalit had no idea why Yacimovich sought him out, yet when she raised the idea of him running for Knesset under Labor, he quickly warmed to it. And despite strong opposition from his wife Aviva and from Gilad, he decided to take the plunge.
Noam thinks he can, as a Knesset member, have a positive impact on the lives of residents of the “periphery" in both the North and South, those who live far from what he calls the “State of Tel Aviv.” He wants to improve the lot of those Israelis by getting them more jobs, improved transportation and better education.
He will hardly make for a conventional politician. Few would-be candidates come with such huge personal recognition; few have mounted a successful public “struggle” (his word) against such great odds. Perhaps most unconventional of all – few candidates would strike a note of tolerance for their son’s captors, suggesting, as Noam does, that Jews also captured soldiers in their fight for independence against the British in the 1940s, and that fighting for one’s freedom, as the Palestinians are doing, bears a similarity to Israel’s struggle for independence.
Gilad’s father is, if nothing else, cautious about his political prospects, and is only too cognizant of how little he knows about politics. Soon after his January 2012 announcement that he planned to run, Noam ducked questions dealing with such substantive issues as Israel’s security or Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Known for his ability to shake things up, Noam has no idea if his widespread recognition will translate into political support. “I hope it does but I don’t know. I will only know when they count the votes.” Is he worried that politics will prove disappointing? “I assume that if I don’t succeed I will be disappointed. But I am not going to commit suicide.”
He talks of his nascent political career and of the year since Gilad’s release while seated at a dining table on which lay mementos of those five years his son was captive: a narrow wooden object inscribed with the phrase “Gilad is still alive,” a button with Gilad’s photo and the slogan “Gilad is Free.” Unlike those times during the “struggle” when Noam shouted into the TV cameras, today the former captive’s father seems to speak grudgingly, uttering short sentences.
He is 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall, yet seems small: trim and wiry, he is nearly bald and wears wire-framed eyeglasses that cover sparkling eyes which at times emit a mischievous twinkle. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, blue shorts and brown sandals, he is alone in the house; Gilad is in the United States, appearing in a closed-door meeting at Yale University the following day (other than saying “thank you” to the crowd, he did not speak); Aviva, a secretary, is at work; Gilad’s brother Yoel, 29, left home recently to work as an engineer for defense firm Rafael; Gilad’s sister, 22-year-old Hadas, is on a post-army tour of the Far East.
Asked about his childhood, Noam is wary – he does not think it important to discuss his early years. Reluctantly, he notes that he was born in 1954 and raised in the town of Kiryat Ata near Haifa. In 1988, at age 34, he moved with his family to Mitzpe Hila. An industrial engineer, he worked in the marketing division or Stef Wertheimer’s ISCAR cutting tool business. For part of Gilad’s captivity, while Noam fought full-time for his son’s release, ISCAR paid his full salary.
Still somewhat hesitant, Noam recalls the strategy he and his family initially employed in 2006 to gain Gilad’s release, choosing on their own, without directives from government officials, to remain quiet and let those in power seek their son’s freedom. After a while, however, all too aware of the lack of success that the family of captive Israeli navigator Ron Arad had in the 1980s when it kept quiet, Noam chose to break the family’s silence. “We decided to escalate,” he says matter-of-factly.
Never wavering in the belief that Gilad had survived, Noam pointed to the arrival of a video sent in October 2009 by Hamas captors as the first real proof that his son was alive. Three previous notes supposedly from Gilad had arrived at the Shalit home; while encouraging, they hardly offered conclusive evidence that he was alive. Watching the footage, Noam was relieved. “Just recognizing him, seeing that he was alive, that he could walk. We were relieved, but we regretted that he was still not coming home at that point.” Insisting that Gilad was still alive, Hamas indicated he would be freed when Israel released their prisoners.
Israeli negotiators worked for years to secure Gilad’s release, but could not agree with Hamas on the list of prisoners who might be exchanged for the soldier. When a final agreement loomed in the fall of 2011, the negotiators informed Noam, but did not seek – or get – his approval. “We didn’t interfere,” he notes.
When the deal was finally announced and some Israelis, including bereaved families who had lost family members to terrorism, protested that the price of releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was too high, Noam was sympathetic – he had lost a twin brother in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “We understand their feelings, their pain, their anger. But here was a chance to return one soldier who would die if he were not freed soon. I would imagine that every parent affected by terror would have done the same thing to bring their son home.”
Much was made of the fact that going free were terrorists who had killed Israelis, but Noam argued that only a small number of the freed prisoners had engaged in lethal acts of terror, and that such “gestures” of freeing Palestinian prisoners were not uncommon. All of Noam’s conversations with bereaved families persuaded him that, “You can’t convince a family that lost a child that what the government did [in releasing so many Palestinian prisoners] was right, that it was justified.” If anyone was to blame, he suggests, it was the government that had been unable to get Hamas agreement on a lower number of prisoners.
As inexperienced as he was in mounting a public struggle to free his son or in entering the political battlefield, Noam was just as much of a novice when knowing how to handle his son upon his return. And so those first few days proceeded very much with Noam as an adhoc psychologist. “We had no plan about how to deal with Gilad. We didn’t know how he would be health-wise or psychologically.”
Physically he was not in good shape. He had surgery to remove seven pieces of shrapnel in his hand a month after his return. The shrapnel wounds, sustained in the moments before his capture, had been left unattended during his captivity. But caring for Gilad’s physical needs was easy compared to his psychological ones.
Rather than force Gilad to talk about his captivity, Noam held back and waited for his son to decide if and how much he wanted to tell. In fact, he offered the family few details. Captivity was clearly something Gilad wanted to put behind him. When Noam repeated to a radio interviewer something he had heard from Gilad about his incarceration, Gilad let his father know of his disapproval.
In the one seeming exception to Gilad’s rule not to give interviews, he appeared on Israel Television in a one-hour documentary on October 17, explaining to friends who produced the film how he passed his time in captivity, how at times he hardly slept, how he made lists to remind himself of things from his past. Most poignant of all, he acknowledged that he would send his children to the army despite his own IDF experience.
Noam explains that Gilad had no idea that the film would wind up on Israel TV.
Noam found Gilad, 26 at the time of his release, grown up, more mature. “We no longer could tell him what to do,” Noam says. In time, a media personality named Arik Henig, who knew some of Gilad’s friends from Mitzpe Hila, approached him and asked if he would like to co-author a weekly sports column for Yediot Aharonot, the mass circulation daily newspaper. “He didn’t send out his resume,” Noam quips.
Since starting the column, Gilad has traveled to an NBA All-Star game in Orlando, Florida, and the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Barcelona. Taking a light view of sport, Gilad and Henig debate in the column about who is the best soccer goalkeeper in the world, and what is the greatest basketball team in history. Noam points out that the column is not meant to be a career choice. Gilad may study mathematics and/or economics at university in the fall of 2013.
If Noam believed that with Gilad’s release, the Palestinians would leave his son alone, he was mistaken. When the Barcelona soccer team invited Gilad to be its guest at the October 7 Super Classico match against Real Madrid, and to receive a medal during the event, Palestinian groups protested and called on Arab sports and soccer groups to follow suit, while Hamas announced a media boycott of Barcelona soccer.
Noam was surprised at the Palestinian reaction. “That is pathetic. They don’t have other problems to deal with and struggle with except whether Gilad will go or not go to Barcelona? We are quite happy to meet Palestinians on sports fields and not on the battlefield or at checkpoints.”
Last spring Israelis were surprised – some were shocked – that Noam appeared to express sympathy for the plight of Gilad’s captors. It was even reported – erroneously – that Noam had understanding for Palestinians who captured Israeli soldiers. In our interview, he sets the record straight. “I said that the Palestinians are fighting for their freedom, for a state, and that if I were a Palestinian maybe I would fight for freedom against the occupying force but not against civilians. We also fought against the British when they occupied us. And we also killed British soldiers. But I am completely against the kidnapping of soldiers and civilians for these things are against international law.”
That begs the question, how did Noam feel about Gilad’s kidnappers? Did he hate them? “Of course I don’t like them. But what I really don’t like is the situation of war between the Palestinians and us. I think that the war should have already ended. In such wars people do dirty things. The IDF is also not clean in its behavior at times.” Is there hope for a solution in the near future? “Unfortunately,” says Noam, “it’s hard to see a solution around the corner. But that doesn’t mean that we and the Palestinians shouldn’t keep trying.”
Gilad’s arrival at home a year has not affected the Shalit family’s religious beliefs. They were secular before Gilad was taken captive and upon his return home, they remain secular. “We are not religious,” says Noam, “but we respect religion and the religious. It’s impossible to say we are religious. We are just not believers.” Even after Gilad returned home safely? “That’s right,” he affirms.