Israeli soldier Shalit probably spent years under ground, doctors say

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 18, 2011 

MITZPE HILA, Israel — After five years in Palestinian custody, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit came home Tuesday to adoring throngs and questions about his long years of captivity.

Doctors said he was malnourished and that he probably had spent much of the last five years in solitary confinement below ground.

His appearance certainly bore that out. Looking fragile, Shalit seemed unsteady when Israel's prime minister, defense minister and the head of the army greeted him with warm hugs.

He limped noticeably from wounds he received when his captors snatched him in a daring cross-border raid in June 2006. His pale skin and weakness were the obvious effect of long years without exposure to sunshine.

He told his parents that the conditions of his confinement had improved in the last few years, though at first he was treated harshly.

"I'm very emotional. I haven't seen people in a long time," Shalit said during an interview he was made to give to Egyptian media before he was transferred to Israel. "I'm not really well."

The story of what Shalit endured during his five years of captivity will no doubt emerge in coming days, but Tuesday was largely reserved in Israel for celebration that the 25-year-old sergeant first class — he was promoted twice while being held by Hamas — was back home. The push for his release had become a cause celebre in Israel.

His family members said he was heartened by the scenes of celebration across Israel in honor of his release.

"I want to thank all of the people who came to support us and welcome Gilad," said Noam Schalit, Gilad's father. "He will now start his rehabilitation, which we hope will be as swift as possible. With the help of the military doctors, we hope he will be able to resume his normal life. Today we are celebrating that our son has been reborn."

It was a day of celebration in the Palestinian territories as well — a rare occasion in which the normally warring states both had cause to rejoice.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to welcome the 477 Palestinian prisoners that Israel released in the first stage in exchange for Shalit. They are the first of 1,027 prisoners that will be released in the coming months.

Many of them were serving multiple life sentences for attacks on Israeli civilians when they were released. Some of them had been in jail for decades.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since June 2007, declared the day a national holiday and turned it into a show of popularity for the Islamist movement in Gaza. On a huge stage wedged next to a grassy lot, more than 300 newly released prisoners took turns speaking to the crowd.

Many spoke of their years in captivity and said they will continue to support militant movements against Israel.

"We trusted in Hamas to bring home our brothers and they did," said Fawzi Abbed, who said his cousin was among the released prisoners. "They know the way to deal with Israel. If it takes 10 more Shalits we will bring home all our families."

The idea that future kidnappings could be used to bring home Palestinian prisoners was popular.

"The people want a new Gilad!" the crowd chanted, after Hamas official Yehiye Sinwar told the crowd that Palestinians would win freedom for all those currently in Israeli jails by "any means necessary."

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmound Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters" and "holy warriors."

Fakhri Barghouti, who had been in Israeli jails since 1978 for fatally stabbing an Israeli settler, was carried on the shoulders of several men as he was surrounded by members of his family, many of whom are prominent in Palestinian society because of their political involvement.

At the time of his release, Barghouti, 57, was the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner.

"There will be no happiness as long as our brothers are still in jail," he said. "I can't feel good when I'm leaving my brothers behind."

His son, Shadi, is serving a 27-year sentence for involvement in an armed group. At one point, he shared a cell with his father.

In Israel, Noam Shalit recognized that it was difficult for many Israeli families to see those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones go free for his son.

"We want to thank the government and the prime minister, and all those who were involved in making this difficult decision. I face the bereaved families, whose pain we sympathize with. We feel the pain for the price they paid for Gilad's freedom," he said.

Shalit's family and supporters said they were preparing to do whatever was necessary to give Shalit the time and space to recover.

On the street outside his home in this northern Israeli village, the first sight his friends and supporters caught of him was on a big screen TV erected outside his home.

"It's him," screamed someone in the crowd, prompting dozens of heads to turn to catch a glimpse a Shalit, in a blue baseball cap, looking surprisingly gaunt.

"Welcome home," said Ohad Kerner, an activist who said he had done little other than campaign for the release of Shalit for the last five years.

After joining the Shalit family on a three-month walk through Israel to raise attention to Shalit's ongoing captivity, Kerner moved into the tent the family erected outside the prime minister's home. He has lived there, sharing in the highs and lows of the negotiation process, until Tuesday morning.

"Bringing Gilad home is the biggest, the most noble thing I've ever done," Kerner said. "It became my mission. Even though I had never met him. I felt like he was my brother, my son that I was bringing home."

He said it was "not unusual" for those who have never met Shalit to become involved in his campaign.

"It's the Israeli way," said Zoar Bar-Shalom, a 20-year-old Shalit family neighbor. "We all feel connected to Shalit, because any one of us could have been taken. We all fight for each other."

She is now finishing her army service.

"I didn't think twice about joining. I knew that if, God forbid, something happened to me, my family and friends in this place would fight for me the way they did for Gilad," she said.

Those gathered in Mitzpe Hila waved flags and covered the small village with signs reading "Gilad, welcome home. We missed you."

They stood for hours on the street outside the Shalit home. They began cheering the moment two Blackhawk helicopters were spotted overhead. Less than 10 minutes later, they broke into song and dance as the van carrying Shalit and his family pulled into the cul-de-sac in front of the family home.

Shalit could just be glimpsed sitting between his parents, a small, shocked smile on his face as he watched the grinning crowds around him.

The crowds remained for several hours, dancing and singing outside the Shalit home until nightfall. The Shalits, they said, had asked for some quiet time alone as a family. It was time to return to normal life, they said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed from Gaza City.)

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