'He is a real person, not a political concept'

By Jessica Elgot, October 19, 2011

As Israel celebrated Gilad Shalit's homecoming, his cousin, Hemda Garelick, a lecturer in London, spoke of her fears that Shalit could become a "tourist attraction" and urged people to treat him as a human being with emotions, not a political concept.

The Middlesex University professor said: "People forget he is a boy sometimes. Lots of people are very forthright in expressing their opinions without thinking about other people's emotions. They even say it to me."

She expressed a particular anger towards the former IDF Chief Rabbi, Avichai Ronsky, who suggested that captive soldiers should be declared dead.

"How can you declare a living person dead? For what? How can someone like that be the IDF rabbi? It's terrible. I can forgive the families of the bereaved for feeling distraught but I don't understand why people feel that because they lost someone, someone else should die too."

Ms Garelick has been in close contact with Mr Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, and his grandfather, Zvi. She said: "I spoke to Zvi on Yom Kippur and he said the negotiator had gone to Egypt and he was hopeful but not overly optimistic. Noam and Aviva were terrified."

Ms Garelick plans to visit after the family have been given some time to themselves. "They need some space. We are talking regularly on the phone, but I try not to call too much, it is overwhelming. But Noam does like talking to the family. It has been important to let them know they are not forgotten."

Ms Garelick said it had sometimes been a struggle for the family to be constantly in the spotlight. "We are not people who like being in the limelight. We have always avoided that, it's not easy. But if you have to, you have to. You have to be the spokesperson."

Shimshon Liebman, head of the Campaign to Free Shalit, issued a call for all citizens to be respectful of the soldier's right to privacy with his family, and urged the media to be restrained.

Celebrations have been held across Israel, but especially at the tent where the Shalits camped outside Benjamin Netanyahu's home.

Israel's chief rabbis issued a statement welcoming the deal, saying they are "excited over the major news, of redemption and salvation."

Last updated: 3:50pm, October 19 2011