Noam Shalit: ‘Prisoner exchange that freed Gilad has strengthened Israeli society’

Noam Shalit: ‘Prisoner exchange that freed Gilad has strengthened Israeli society’

Parents of the iconic Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for more than 1,900 days reflect on the family's ordeal and the aftermath of his release at the Limmud festival in Birmingham

Aviva and Noam Shalit at Limmud 

Credit: Eli Gaventa
Aviva and Noam Shalit at Limmud Credit: Eli Gaventa

On 9 March, 2009, the parents of Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in Gaza in June 2006, spent their first night in a tent outside the Israeli prime ministers house, in a bid to press Benjamin Netanyahu to secure their son’s release.

“We will stay as long as Gilad is not freed,” Noam Shalit, his father, told Israeli army radio.

For Noam and Aviva Shalit, it was the hardest juncture of the largest public campaign orchestrated in Israel’s history.

The Shalits greeted 10,000 people daily, Israelis and non Israelis, Jews and non Jews, foreign ministers and tourists, from all over the world.

Next to Aviva stood a chair marked ‘reserved for Gilad’. “Being around so many people…it was weird,” Noam comments. “The whole world wanted to talk to us. But we got used it.”

“The counter.. that was hard,” murmurs Aviva, referring to the number that recorded each day Gilad spent in captivity. Another sign, updated daily, asked ‘Sara and Bibi, I’ve been in captivity for 1,900 days, where are you?’

Noam Shalit is speaking at Limmud, and people jostle to talk to him at the end of his address. He concludes his final presentation in hesitant English: “We are grateful for the solidarity of the Jewish community from all over the world, thank you for helping us to bring Gilad our son home.”

A teenager pipes up from the back, “do you know we all kept an empty chair at our seders for Gilad?” Another question, “Noam, what are you trying to achieve in going around the world?” Noam Shalit is genuinely puzzled. “I’m not going around the world.”

I approach Noam at the end of his first of three interviews, and ask if he can meet for a few minutes. Walking to the lift, we see Aviva Shalit looking distressed, in a sea of Limmudniks rushing to the next session. “Just a few minutes,” Noam tells her, and I lead the couple upstairs. Its clear that Noam is the considered, reluctant publicist. Aviva wears strained resignation. It is poignant to consider this quiet, modest couple propelled into the limelight.

Noam starts: “It’s been six years since Gilad was released, and journalists call us all the time to give interviews and make comments. We keep saying that we are trying to get away from the media, in front of Israel and the public. This cause became the biggest in Israel, until the social justice protests of 2011.”

“Not only a cause in Israel,” I say. ”For all the Jewish people.” “Right,” nods Noam. “Now we want to live in the Western Galilee. We want to be as quiet as possible.”

“This is the price we pay,” Aviva states, simply. What does that mean? “We pay the price- on the bus, on the train. We are recognised. But this happened to us. We had no choice.”

“They want a post mortum, of why it happened,” Noam continues. “I don’t want it. It is what it is, there was no alternative. Yuval Diskin [Director of Shin Bet 2005-11] said it was a personal failure of his, and he was part of the deal. He also understood there was no alternative.”

I ask Noam and Aviva how they maintained hope. “We didn’t have a choice. We didn’t know if he was alive. There was a constant debate if he was living. Every day we got different news. Sometimes we were desperate. But we kept trying.”

After seven months, the family received a note in what they recognised as Gilad’s handwriting, which confirmed to them their son was alive. The Shalit family found themselves in the midst of a PR battle with the Israeli government. Benjamin Netanyahu would later comment that the decision to cut a deal on the exchange of prisoners was “among the most difficult that I have ever made”.

Speaking publicly to Limmud, Noam says that the fear that the prisoners exchanged for Gilad’s life did not resume acts of terror, as feared, and did not prompt increased kidnappings of soldiers. The process strengthened societal values, the sanctity of life, the imperative of freeing the captive. It made, he argues, Israel better.

“Bibi would release messages to frighten the public,” explains Noam, ”releasing prisoners would start another intifada, a new wave of terror, buses would explode in the streets. He said he had to consider all the options for the people of Israel and their security, he couldn’t only consider the interests of Gilad.”

Noam Shalit (right) at Limmud

Were they angry with Netanyahu?

“He had a different job,” Aviva says flatly. “A different role, with different interests to ours. We had to do everything we had to do to get Gilad home, we had no choice, even if we had to be ‘hardcore’.”

How is Gilad Shalit? What enabled him to cope? The IDF sergeant who spent almost 2000 days in a basement with no windows, fulfilled his dream of studying economics at IDC herzalia and is now working in Discount Bank in Tel Aviv. “He is well, we see that he survived his ordeal. He tried to reclaim the years of captivity.”

“For us its an enigma, how he’s ok.” Aviva explains, “it was something inside of him, his strength and resilience, that he had, even before he was a soldier. The psychologist said she didn’t know where he didn’t know where he got it from. The doctors were afraid to let him go out so quickly, they wanted him to do it in stages, but he wanted to travel, to go to basketball games, to the sea. He looks forward. He got on his bike and pedaled towards the sun. It’s a miracle.”

While reluctant to speak, Noam Shalit is keen to stress that lessons were learned from the case of Ron Arad, the IDF pilot captured and handed to Hezbollah. Missing in action since October 1986, Arad is widely presumed dead. Four years after Gilad was abducted, a new campaign was launched in a haunting ad showing Shalit’s face morphing into Arad’s. ‘Is Gilad still alive? There’s no time to lose.’ The message is clear: don’t let Gilad Shalit become the next Ron Arad.

“His family were told to keep a low profile, were told not to  undermine efforts to bring him back, it will jeopardise the deal with Hamas” explains Noam. “Once they realised it won’t happen, it was too late. We were in contact with them and asked for permission to learn from them. We understood we can’t stay quiet. Olmert (Ehud Olmert, Israeli Prime Minister 2006-09) wanted us to, and we wouldn’t do it.”

As the conversation draws to a close, I thank Noam and Aviva and escort them out. Thanking them, apologising if I had taken too much of their time, Noam says, “Look. For us its history. Its memories.” “Bad memories,” corrects Aviva.

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