Today, our son is reborn…

October 19, 2011
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Walk this way: Netanyahu and father Noam Shalit with Gilad

Walk this way: Netanyahu and father Noam Shalit with Gilad

Throughout the past five years and four months, it has been evident that Aviva and Noam Shalit are intensely private individuals, forced into the public eye to campaign for their son's freedom.

On Tuesday, they finally had their chance to regain their privacy. As Gilad Shalit walked off the helicopter at Tel-Nof Air Force Base a free man, to be greeted by the nation's military and political leaders, the family remained inside the squadron building, and only Noam stepped outside to greet him.

It was clear that he was his father's son. "Hi Abba," he said quietly and the two hugged briefly and walked inside.

Only after his son had arrived safely at their home in Mitzpe Hila did Noam give an emotional statement to the press: "Gilad came down the stairs, into the house and through the door he left so long ago. Today, it feels like my son has been reborn," he said.

It was the culmination of the longest captivity of an Israeli soldier and of an exhausting day for the 25-year-old soldier who had been taken out early in the morning from an underground hiding place somewhere in the town of Rafah, after a sleepless night.

At the same time, 477 Palestinian prisoners were waiting on buses at border crossings near Gaza, in the West Bank and in Israeli police stations, for a sign of life from Shalit.

Home sweet home: Shalit in front of his house

Home sweet home: Shalit in front of his house

He was brought to a location near the crossing to Egypt, where Ahmed Jabari, the commander of Hamas's military wing and the most powerful man in Gaza, was waiting.

Jabari handed Shalit over to an Egyptian officer who escorted him to the border. His final hand-over and exit to Egypt was delayed as two female terrorists tried to object to their transfer to Gaza, where both of them faced hostile receptions. But at 10.15, he finally crossed over into Egypt and was positively identified by Israel. Simultaneously, the Palestinian prisoners were released to Egypt and the West Bank.

His ordeal, however, was not yet over. The Egyptians held on to him for close to an hour, during which time he was forced to give a television interview. In it, he was asked questions about his treatment during captivity, his thoughts and hopes and also whether he would himself campaign for the release of thousands of other Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, to which he answered: "I hope they will be released and won't attack Israel."

A few minutes after 11 o'clock, Shalit was finally handed over to an Israeli team on the border, from where he was taken in an armoured convoy to a nearby base. There he spoke to his parents on the phone for the first time since being taken captive, had a light meal, underwent a basic medical checkup and changed into the IDF uniform of a First-Sergeant in the Armoured Corps.

The check-up was satisfactory and he boarded a helicopter that flew him to Tel Nof in central Israel. During the flight, he fainted for a few moments but he was sufficiently revived upon landing to walk out and salute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shook his hand said: "Welcome back to Israel, Gilad. How good it is that you have returned home." He then saluted Defence Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Major General Benny Gantz, who hugged him. The three escorted him to his father.

After spending time with his family, he underwent more medical tests and was flown with his family back to their home in Mitzpe Hila.

Meanwhile, the released Palestinian prisoners were received in three separate rallies in Ramallah, Cairo and Gaza. In the Strip, over 100,000 people came out to greet 293 returning prisoners. The masses chanted "we need a new Gilad Shalit", waving photographs of Palestinians still in prison, calling upon Hamas to capture more Israeli soldiers for further exchanges.

In Israel, there was widespread support for the deal, despite its cost. According to one poll, 79 per cent of the public was in favour and streets were empty as families gathered to watch the live television coverage throughout the day.

But there were bitter objectors, mainly the families of those who had been murdered by prisoners being released, and right-wing politicians.

The exchange was carried out on Tuesday, giving the opponents 48 hours to petition the Supreme Court against the deal. The petitioners claimed that the deal "brings Israel down on its knees in front of the terrorists".

Mr Netanyahu wrote an open letter to the families, saying that he understood their pain but that "the Prime Minister of Israel has a duty to return a soldier sent by the state to defend it".

On Monday evening, the court ruled that it could not intervene in the government's decision and the prisoner deal was given the go-ahead.

Events such as these looked unlikely as recently as April, when David Meidan was appointed the Prime Minister's special envoy for the Gilad Shalit case.

Hamas seemed as intransigent as ever, having turned down the previous two proposals for a prisoner exchange. They had refused to have any further dealings with the German mediator Gerhard Conrad, accusing him of being "pro-Israeli". The main link between Israel and Hamas, Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, had also disappeared from the scene.

As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was uncertain on the deal and his cabinet was split. It was not surprising that the previous two envoys had given up.

Like his predecessor as special envoy, Hagai Hadas, Mr Meidan is also a former senior Mossad operative. But Mr Meidan had an advantage: Egyptian-born, he speaks good Arabic and is at home in Cairo and other Arab capitals.

There were two further sources of optimism. Mr Meidan discovered that Dr Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli-US peace activist, had received messages from senior Hamas figures that they were still interested in making a deal. In addition, the new head of Egyptian intelligence, Murad Muwafi, indicated that the military government had a strategic interest in brokering a deal.

By late June, there were many indications that Hamas was prepared to return to the table.

In July, Mr Meidan arrived in Cairo and met the senior Egyptian intelligence officers who would relay the messages between him and the Hamas leaders, who were in a nearby hotel room. Over the next two and a half months, there were six rounds of indirect talks.

In these efforts, he had a new ally, Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen, who had replaced Yuval Diskin in May and was more open to a deal.

Mr Cohen joined Mr Meidan in the last rounds of negotiations. He was the one who held the details of the Palestinian prisoners and the security assessments of how their release would affect the situation in the West Bank and Gaza.

The outlines of the deal were clear. Israel had agreed in principle to release 450 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, including many who had been sentenced to life for terrorist atrocities. In addition, a further 550 prisoners would be released over the next two months.

The dispute was two-fold, over the identity of the prisoners and Israel's demand that those who would almost certainly return to terror should not be allowed to return to the West Bank.

Gradually, it became clear that Hamas was eager to make a deal and was willing to move on both points.

In addition, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was getting all the attention in his bid for UN recognition, Hamas felt it was being marginalised. They needed a coup.

Slowly, their intentions became clear: they would compromise on the prisoner list and agree to deportations but Israel had to grant some concessions in return.

Mr Meidan and Mr Cohen then offered, additionally, prisoners who were Israeli citizens and those who had lived in East Jerusalem; all the Palestinian women who had been sentenced before Shalit's capture; and 25 further captives from a Hamas list.

The last round of talks began three days before Yom Kippur and ended with a marathon 36-hour session in which every name on the list was approved by both sides. In the early hours of Tuesday, October 11, Mr Cohen and Mr Meidan signed the agreement and flew back to Israel to update the cabinet.

Last updated: 12:49pm, October 19 2011