Freeing Gilad

Freeing Gilad

Noam Shalit tells local students how Hamas released his son

The students listened intently as Noam Shalit told them his son’s story. SSDS

Some questions every parent hopes never to have to answer:

How far would you go to rescue your child?

How brave would you be?

How resourceful?

How resilient?

How smart?

How crafty?

How compliant?

How non-compliant?

Noam Shalit had to face those questions.

In 2006, his son, Gilad, then 19 years old, a corporal in an Israel Defense Forces’ tank unit, was kidnapped by Hamas in an attack that killed three IDF troops and wounded three others. Gilad, also shot and hurt, was forced through tunnels back into Gaza.

Gilad was held in captivity for five and a half years, and released – pale, weak, and with a still-mangled hand, but alive – in 2011.

Noam Shalit has been touring Bergen and Rockland counties, talking about his son’s captivity and his family’s response to it, not to sell anything but to thank the American Jewish community for the support that helped keep him and his family from sinking. Last week, he spoke to students at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford. After the presentation he talked more about his experiences, and about Gilad’s.

The first they heard about the episode that would mark their lives was a few lines on a radio news broadcast, Noam Shalit said. “It was a Sunday morning, the beginning of a regular summer week. We were at work, my wife and I, and I heard a report about an incident.” He is trained as an industrial engineer, and his wife, Aviva, was a secretary. “But as far as I knew, that wasn’t where Gilad was stationed.

“And then, at 9:30 a.m., they called me to the City Hall office, and I saw the IDF representatives, and they told me.

“It was a very big shock, and I had a strong feeling of déjà vu. I had faced army officers like that 40 years ago, when they came to tell us that my twin brother, Yoel, was killed in the Yom Kippur war.”

Later, when he returned home to Mitzpe Hila in the Galilee, his street, where “we don’t usually see anything but cats and dogs, was full of journalists and reporters and trucks from media from all around the world. Until then, I had never seen a microphone in front of me.”

That changed quickly.

For the first two years, the Shalits “kept a relatively low profile,” Mr. Shalit said. “But then we realized that the government was in no hurry to get him back.” It’s not that government officials didn’t want his son returned, Mr. Shalit elaborated, “but the price they were willing to pay wasn’t high enough.” It also wasn’t that they weren’t acting in good faith, “but in Israel there is what I called the trust system. It’s ‘you can trust me – until you can’t.’ I know it, so I was very alert to it.”

Mr. Shalit knew that if his son continued to be out of sight, soon he’d be out of mind, and soon after that he’d no longer be anything. Including alive.

In part, that knowledge was instinctive, and in part it came from his friendship with Tami Arad. Her husband, IDF aviator Ron Arad, had been kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1986. His captors released a few letters and photographs to prove that he was still alive, and the Israeli government negotiated for his release, but no agreement ever was reached, and there were no more signs of life from him. He is now presumed to be dead, but no one – except his kidnappers and eventual executioners – knows where, when, or how he died.

That was a precautionary tale Mr. Shalit took to heart.

A year after Gilad was captured, the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two other young IDF soldiers who had been taken prisoner, were released. “And then, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign in 2009, we demanded that he conclude the crisis before he stepped down from office.” He didn’t, so “we went for the first time to protest in Jerusalem, during his last days in office.

He and his supporters established a headquarters and engaged a public relations firm. “We upgraded our campaign gradually until the summer of 2010, when we saw that we now are facing four years of captivity, and nothing would happen.

“I told Prime Minister Netanyahu that four years of captivity with no results, no light at the end of the tunnel that wasn’t a train, was for us a causus belli,” a reason to wage war. A public relations war, he meant. “I told him that we are going to the public,” Mr. Shalit said. “We were going to test our case publicly.”

Mr. Shalit and many supporters marched from the Galilee to Jerusalem. It took 11 days in the heat of an Israeli summer. “We were roughly 10,000 people every day.” Overall, about 200,000 people participated in the march in some way.

In Jerusalem, the group settled in a park across from the prime minister’s home. Mr. Shalit and his supporters erected a tent, where he spent most of his daylight hours for the next 15 months. “We set up a sign in from of the house, with a counter showing the days of Gilad’s captivity,” he said. “We updated the counter every day.

“The prime minister could not ignore us. He saw us every day when he goes out to work, and every evening when he comes back home. And his family couldn’t ignore us.”

This happened at just about the time social media took off, and Twitter and other platforms made Gilad Shalit’s plight and his father’s fight to rescue him a cause celebre.

In order to spearhead the struggle for his son, Noam Shalit had to quit his job, supporting himself on his company’s generosity, and on the kindness of both friends and strangers. “Of course, when you live in a tent you don’t need much,” he said.

Gilad Shalit eventually was released in a prisoner exchange, which always is touchy and controversial. “The prisoner exchange was the idea of the Egyptians, who were mediators at the time,” Noam Shalit said. “But Olmert made a huge strategic mistake when he asked Hamas leaders to issue a list of 450 prisoners to be released. Once they issued the list – with the names of the most hardcore prisoners – they didn’t want to withdraw from it. ‘You told us to provide the list, and we did. So what do you want now?'” they asked.

Although negotiations had been underway for some time, it was not until the third negotiation that they bore fruit. That time, the special coordinator for captive and missing soldiers, as the lead negotiator was called, was David Meidan. “He was a senior officer of the Mossad at that time,” Mr. Shalit said. “He was able to read the map much better than his predecessors. He was born in Egypt, he is fluent in Arabic, and he knows our cousins the Palestinians very well.” Through all sorts of backchannel shortcuts, as well as more straightforward diplomatic channels, a deal eventually was cut.

According to polls, 70 percent of Israelis were in favor of the exchange, although no one saw it as anything other than painful. “Nobody, including us, was happy to see prisoners going free,” Mr. Shalit said. “It was especially hard for the families of terror victims. Unfortunately, the government failed to create any other alternatives.”

“It was Sukkot eve 2011,” he continued. “David Meidan texted me a message to say that they had reached a deal. Still the cabinet had to approve the deal – and it was Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet. I doubted that he could lead the cabinet to approve it, but eventually there was a lot of support. Twenty-seven out of 30 cabinet ministers voted in favor of it.”

And so, on erev Simchat Torah, Palestinian prisoners were released, and Gilad Shalit was let free.

“Gilad talked very little about his captivity, and we don’t want to pressure him,” Noam Shalit said. He offered a few details, among them the fact that “his love for sports kept him sane. He had the chance to see some soccer channels that his captors allowed, and he made a ball out of rolled-up socks, and used a garbage can for a basket.” He craved sunlight, and when he first was released he would ride his bike, pedaling freely in the light, going where he chose.

Now Gilad Shalit is in college in Herzliya, studying economics and sustainability. He has a girlfriend. “He is recognized wherever he goes, so his life is different now,” his father said. “He has some disability in his hand – he was not treated well, and when he came back he had a complicated operation. Otherwise he is quite well. His first year in university was not easy after eight years of disconnection from school, but he is looking forward to finishing.”

Noam Shalit’s life also has changed. He ran unsuccessfully for Knesset as a member of Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party, at her request, and is not interested in trying again. He sells real estate, does some teaching for the IDF, and goes on the occasional speaking tour – not for money, but to say thanks.

When he is asked what he thinks of prisoner swaps in general, he is careful in his reply. “I am in favor of peace negotiations, and of separation from the Palestinians,” he said. “I am in favor of two states for the two people. I believe that one state for the two people would be a disaster for Israel and the Israeli state.

“We need to separate from the Palestinians, and to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, including releasing Palestinian prisoners. I’m not sure about the timing, or if there are other ways to do it, but I believe that eventually there will be a peace agreement, and at the end of the conflict Israel will have to release the Palestinian prisoners, one way or another.”

So an onlooker is left with the question – how did he do it? How did he manage to get his son out of captivity and back into the sunlight, free from Hamas? How did he manage to shift public opinion and political reality?

Where did his strength come from?

“Really, I had no other choice,” he said.

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