Last night, on a Jerusalem street called Gaza, more than 300 revelers packed the road, sang religious songs, blasted car horns, and waved flags to bless the deal to return captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Inside the fluorescent-lit tent in the Israeli capital’s Rehavia neighborhood that has become base camp for Shalit supporters, Gilad’s brother Yoel sat with his girlfriend, Yaara. He had just returned home from his job as a programmer in Haifa Tuesday when he got the call. “At first I didn’t believe it, because there have been so many rumors in the past,” he said. “But slowly it became clear how this time is different from the others.”
He continued: “We will finally be a normal family.”
Since Shalit’s 2006 capture, Israeli leaders have ignored calls to secure his release by freeing Palestinian prisoners, saying it would compromise national security. In 2010, Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, marched across the country to demand a deal and then moved into a white tent outside the prime minister’s residence. They’ve remained there for 14 months—and, along the way, gained thousands of supporters who saw in Shalit far more than the story of just one prisoner. Instead, the young captive became a symbol of the teens recruited to the army, as well as the state’s responsibility to the soldiers it sends to guard its borders. Shalit was a terrifying example of the worst fate that can befall an Israeli in uniform, said supporters interviewed in Jerusalem last night.
Hebrew University student Roni Ofer, 25, said she served in the army at the same time as Shalit. But while she completed her service, he remained a captive. “It was shocking,” she said. “When we are drafted, we know we will be taken care of. Suddenly someone was kidnapped and nothing was done.” Others saw in Gilad Shalit a stand-in for their own children. Ofer Nuna, 40, drove an hour from his home in Rishon Lezion yesterday to bless the Shalits. He stood outside their tent with his 3-year-old son on his shoulders.
“It’s a soldier in the army, it’s like a child of ours,” said Nuna, who still serves on reserve duty. “How can you keep a kid in captivity for five years?”
But news of the soldier’s return brought a wide range of supporters, including skullcapped young men belting out prayers to the beat of a hand drum and Sara Nagani, 53, a homeless woman living in a tent encampment in Jerusalem who last night was waving a blue-and-white Gilad Shalit flag. In summer, throngs of Israelis stood on the same street and demanded more economic equality and a welfare state. Yesterday, the rally was a meeting of people whose demands had finally been met.
Haim Shalom, 33, a reform rabbi in Jerusalem, said Shalit’s release was a correction of “a terrible injustice that we as a society allowed to happen.” He went on: “I think it’s quite appropriate that straight after Yom Kippur and as we go to dwell in our tents, we are finally able to leave this tent here, the tent of Gilad Shalit,” he said.
Just after midnight, Gilad’s father, Noam, arrived. Wearing a blue collared shirt, he pushed his rimless glasses up and offered a smile. Behind him were pictures of his son.
“The Israeli government succeeded after more than five years, 1,934 hard days and 1,935 long nights, to bring Gilad home,” he said. “Tonight we ask to strengthen and bless the prime minister on a brave decision and on leadership he showed despite the great deal of time that has passed.”
Noam Shalit thanked the million activists in Israel and worldwide who have supported him. “From our point of view, this issue will be closed when we see Gilad arrive home and go down the stairs to the house,” he added. “Then we will be able to say the circle has been closed.”
For most of the revelers, 1,000 released Palestinian soldiers was a steep but necessary price to pay for Shalit’s release. But not for Lea Schijveschuurder, 20, whose parents, brother, and two sisters were killed in a bombing in a Jerusalem pizza restaurant 10 years ago. Throughout the evening, as word spread that Abdullah Bargouti, the mastermind of that attack, was one of those to be freed in the deal—rumors later disabused by the media—she was among those standing nearby holding anti-deal signs. Schijveschuurder’s read: “My parents’ blood shouts from the grave.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained his thinking in a speech to his Cabinet. “I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East,” he said. “I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all.”