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svgadminsvgOctober 18, 2011svgFacts & Solutions

Israel Welcomes Back its Lost Soldier Amid Joy and Anger

Ruth Pollard, Tel Nof Air Base

A YOUNG man captured by militants while protecting a country he loves, and two ordinary, devoted parents who never gave up fighting for his release – for five long years, the Gilad Shalit story has been etched deeply into the Israeli consciousness.

As word came through yesterday that Sergeant Shalit had been returned to Israeli soil, the release by Israel of 477 Palestinian prisoners into the custody of the Red Cross began.

Sergeant Shalit sat down with Egyptian state television for his first interview after his release from Hamas capture. Looking pale and thin, but smiling often, he spoke hesitantly, his eyes lowering as he spoke.

What did he miss the most? ”To talk and to meet people,” he replied.

”I hope this deal will help conclusion of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Sergeant Shalit visibly struggled when he was asked: ”There are thousands of Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails, will you campaign for their release?”

”I’ll be happy if Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are freed as long as they don’t return to attack Israel,” he said.

”I missed my family and friends. I have a lot to do now I am free.”

Dressed in an Israel Defence Forces uniform after discarding the clothes Hamas dressed him in for his release, he landed at Israel’s Tel Nof Air Base to be reunited with his parents.

At his home in the Galilee village of Mitzpe Hila, supporters lined the road to his house with white roses in preparation for his homecoming.

Sergeant Shalit was taken prisoner in a raid by Hamas militants on the Israeli side of the Gaza border on June 25, 2006. His capture unleashed a huge Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip to try to secure his release in which at least 400 Palestinians died.

Yesterday, Palestinian flags fluttered in the breeze as hundreds of Palestinian families and loved ones waited outside

checkpoints and jails, and convoys of buses transported prisoners to release points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There was a huge security presence at all prisoner exchange points.

Celebrations were planned in the West Bank and Gaza City to welcome home the prisoners – about 300 were to cross the Egyptian border at Kerem Shalom and then return to Gaza, and another 100 were to be freed from Ofer prison into the West Bank.

Many had been in jail for decades, often held in terrible conditions and with severe restrictions on visits by family and friends.

In Israel, there was palpable joy at the news of Sergeant Shalit’s release, not just for him but for his parents, Noam and Aviva, who kept up the pressure on Israel’s government and defence forces to make a deal to bring their son home.

Not satisfied with the failure to secure his release, and as their son continued to be held hostage in an undisclosed location in the Gaza Strip, denied access to any international help, the couple set up a protest tent across the road from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem 15 months ago. They never stopped fighting.

Dahlia Scheindlin, an international public opinion analyst and academic at Tel Aviv University, said: ”Everyone in this country is just two degrees of separation away from someone who was killed in a terror attack or killed in the army. There is a sense that his release means there is one more death that has been prevented, but on the other hand everybody in this country can relate to the relatives of those who were killed.”

A poll this week showed the Israeli public overwhelmingly supported the deal, Ms Scheindlin said, but within each person there were deeply conflicting feelings.

In answer to the question, ”Do you support the deal in which Gilad Shalit is to be released in exchange for 1027 terrorists?”, 79 per cent of Israelis polled said ”yes” and 14 per cent said ”no”. The poll was published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Half said they were concerned that the release of the Palestinian prisoners would harm security in Israel.

Ms Scheindlin said Sergeant Shalit’s parents were a major reason he had become such a part of Israeli consciousness.

”For at least the last two to three years of [Shalit’s] five-year incarceration, the Israeli public blamed the government for his plight. They almost forgot that Hamas was holding him in contravention of international law, and this was because of the determination of his parents to lobby the government and make it their problem.”

But the pain and anger of those who have lost loved ones in terror attacks perpetrated by some of the prisoners being released is also deeply felt.

On Monday, Mr Netanyahu released a letter to the families of those killed in terrorist attacks.

”I know that the price is very heavy for you. I understand the difficulty to countenance that the evil people who perpetrated the appalling crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price that they deserve,” he wrote. ”I belong to a bereaved family of the victims and fallen of terrorism. [My] brother was killed in the operation to rescue the Entebbe hostages.”

He said the decision to make the deal for Sergeant Shalit’s release ”was among the most difficult that I have ever made”.

For some, his words will not be enough. Much of the anger is focused on the release of the perpetrators of a 2001 Jerusalem pizza cafe bombing in which 15 people were killed. Then 21, Ahlam Tamimi directed the bomber to the cafe and has shown no remorse for the deaths.

That she is part of the prisoner swap is inconceivable to Arnold Roth, originally from Melbourne, who lost his 15-year-old daughter Malki in the bombing. ”This is a terrible day,” Mr Roth told the BBC.

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