‘Today we have experienced the rebirth of our son’

"When I saw Gilad, I didn't say much. I just hugged him," Noam Schalit says of his son's return to Israel; Mitzpe Hila celebrates soldier's arrival.

Noam Schalit 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Noam Schalit 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
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.
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“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 come home.”
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, 2006.
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 motorcade.
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.
But they 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 captivity.
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 Noam.
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.
“The happiness we feel can not be described, it’s like walking on the moon,” he said.
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 said.
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 said.
“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 answers.”
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 said.
“It seemed like lately, we had almost lost faith,” she said.
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.”
In 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 home.
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.
That 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.
Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit
Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit