Supporters make pilgrimage to Mitzpe Hila

While waiting in Mitzpe Hila for Gilad Schalit to return home, Druse man who was imprisoned for 8 years in Egypt says family should "go slow."

Israeli Druse man Azzam Azzam in Egyptian court 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Israeli Druse man Azzam Azzam in Egyptian court 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
“That’s him!” screamed activist Daniella Hendel Levi.
She stood in Gilad Schalit’s hometown of Mitzpe Hila on Monday morning, near an outdoor studio set up by Channel 2, one of many supporters who converged on the community near the Lebanese border in anticipation of the soldier’s return.
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Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, on a small television screen, Levi caught her first glimpse of Schalit as he emerged from the Gaza Strip after more than five years of captivity.
She burst into tears, as other activists and reporters immediately crowded around the Channel 2 studio.
Sitting at a table, in the midst of an interview, were Shlomo and Miki Goldwasser.
Their son Ehud’s body was returned to Israel in July 2008 in a prisoner swap.
Within minutes, a thin, pale Gilad in Egypt, wearing a baseball cap and a button-down shirt, was seen on a large television screen set up at the entry to the small road leading to the Schalit home.
Ohad Kerner, one of the leaders in the campaign to free Schalit, screamed with joy, and then hugged another activist.
Both men wore white T-shirts that read, “It’s so good that you’ve come back home.”
To the photographers and cameramen who crowded around him, Kerner said, “It’s our first glimpse of him.” He put his hand on his heart as he spoke.
Spontaneously, he thanked everyone involved in reaching the deal with Hamas.
He also had a message for the bereaved families who had opposed the swap that released terrorists responsible for killing their loved ones.
“Please understand, this was a fight for his life,” Kerner said.
Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit
Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit
Miki Goldwasser, whose story ended so differently, told reporters she felt “amazing” and “euphoric” watching the first shots of Gilad.
Her son, Sgt.-Maj. Ehud Goldwasser, 30, along with fellow reservist St.-Sgt. Maj. Eldad Regev, 25, was killed in a Hezbollah attack on the northern border, 17 days after Schalit was kidnapped near the Gaza Strip.
For two years, until the bodies of Ehud and Eldad were returned to Israel, no one in Israel knew if they were dead or alive.
The initial campaign to free Schalit was a call to release all three men.
“Unfortunately, my son did not survive,” Miki Goldwasser said. “So I am glad to see that Gilad is alive. I saw from the pictures that he is fine.”
Since 2008, she said, she had continued to help the Schalit family.
“I am a soldier in their army,” she said, so it was important for her to come to Mitzpe Hila to be with them at this time.
Activist David Renov, from a nearby community, is a veteran of the First Lebanon War. He also said he needed to come to Mitzpe Hila for Schalit’s return.
“I felt from the moment that he was captured like a relative of mine was captured,” Renov said. “I suffered thinking of him in a hole in the ground. I felt like a part of myself was missing and in jail,” he said.
“I didn’t feel like I could be anywhere else, to see it and hear it on television was not enough,” he said.
Wearing a Beduin robe and a white head covering, Sheikh Salaam Hozel of Rahat, who also worked on Schalit’s behalf said, “I wanted to bless Noam.”
Yaakov Kassis from the Christian village of Mi’ilya, located right below Mitzpe Hila, said, “I am very happy. It was difficult for the family.”
Also among the Schalit supporters in Mitzpe Hila was Azzam Azzam, a Druse from Maghar in the Upper Galilee who was freed from an Egyptian jail in 2004, after eight years.
He told the The Jerusalem Post that he was still plagued by nightmares from the experience.
“The trauma hasn’t left me,” he said. “At night it all comes back.”
When Gilad was kidnapped in 2006, Azzam traveled to Mitzpe Hila to meet with the Schalit family, and he has been in touch with them ever since.
Smoking a cigarette, Azzam said that what struck him the most after Israel reached a deal with Egypt to release him, was the plunge from confinement to freedom.
“Suddenly no one is giving you orders, you can do what you want,” he said.
Similarly, Azzam said, Gilad is also now free after he was held in a small, confined space.
He advised Schalit’s family to go slow and not to delve into his experiences at the hands of Hamas.
“Don’t ask him what happened, because it will traumatize him to think of those years,” he said.
“Start with simple things. Ask him what he wants to eat,” Azzam said. “And hug him.”