President Shimon Peres met Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Shalit on Monday, less than a week after the soldier's release from more than five years in Hamas captivity. In what was described as an emotional visit, Peres arrived at the Shalit home in the northern town of Mitzpe Hila and met Shalit, 25, and his parents, Aviva and Noam Shalit.
“You have no idea how thrilled I am to meet you here in your home alive, healthy and whole,” Peres told Shalit after embracing him. The still-frail Shalit thanked Peres for the support he had provided to his parents during his years as a prisoner. Aviva and Noam Shalit, who led the nationwide campaign to pressure the government for a prisoner swap to secure their son's release, also expressed their gratitude to Peres.
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“We appreciate and thank you for everything you have done over the years. We know very well that you were involved behind the scenes and we needed all the help we could get,” Noam Shalit told Peres.
“I came to convey to you how proud I am, and how proud the entire nation is, of your ability to withstand extremely difficult conditions in captivity,” Peres told Shalit, who was largely silent throughout the meeting.
The entire nation was glued to television screens last Tuesday in anticipation of Gilad Shalit's homecoming, with hundreds packing the streets of his hometown waving Israeli flags and wearing T-shirts bearing his image. Shalit, who was abducted near the Gaza Strip in a 2006 cross-border raid by Palestinian terrorists, was released as part of a carefully executed prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel reached with German and Egyptian mediation after years of negotiations. In return for Shalit’s return, more than 1,000 prisoners jailed in Israel are being released.
“When we saw you descend from the helicopter we could all breathe a sigh of relief,” Peres told Shalit. “You are a true hero for what you endured for more than five years, and you survived an ordeal that not many would have been able to withstand.”
Aviva Shalit told Peres that her son's release was made possible in part because of the values Israelis place on repatriating prisoners. She reiterated her praise for the government's decision to finalize the prisoner swap. “Gilad is a real hero. I want to thank you for coming to our home and for your warm words. I also want to thank Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu again for making a courageous decision to return Gilad home alive, and prove that mutual responsibility is not just a hollow concept. It seems to me that all Israelis recognize this,” she said.
The Israeli army has made a conscious decision to give Shalit time to rehabilitate and adjust to his new life before making him undergo the routine debriefing process for returning prisoners. Since Tuesday he has stayed mostly within the confines of his home, occasionally walking or biking the streets of his hometown along with his family. He was seen doing some gardening work ahead of Peres' visit. Shalit is expected to undergo additional medical check-ups on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, politicians continued their attacks on opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni over comments she made earlier this week criticizing the government over the prisoner swap. Fellow Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, who has challenged Livni for the Kadima leadership and is one of her fiercest critics, said she was wrong about the deal's ramifications for Israeli security. Mofaz, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former IDF Chief of General Staff, said the deal “makes Israel stronger.”
“I supported past prisoner swaps and I supported the most recent swap that government approved. Since there was no other way to release Shalit, I believe this was the right decision,” Mofaz said, citing the solidarity among Israelis for the deal. He said that despite the possibility that freed terrorists could return to their old ways, he viewed “the return of a child to his homeland and reuniting him with his mother” as one of the most humane things a government could do.
In an interview with local media, Livni said Sunday that the deal “weakened Israel” and that the Israeli government had only strengthened Hamas by agreeing to it. “It is necessary to return from the reality show surrounding Gilad to the reality of life here,” she said, in what many perceived as a reference to the country's emotional attachment to the Shalit issue without fully comprehending the merits of the deal.
The deal to release Shalit was approved by the government more than a week ago, but Livni did not make her reaction to the deal public until Sunday, reportedly at the request of Shalit's parents, who feared her opposition might derail it.
Ehud Olmert, who was prime minister when Shalit was captured and during his first two and half years of captivity, commented on the deal for the first time on Monday. Speaking at a conference held by One Voice, an organization promoting dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, Olmert said he was “happy Gilad is home and in good health.”
Meanwhile, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Sunday officially invited Shalit to attend the opening meeting of the Knesset's winter session next week. In recent years, Shalit's parents and other relatives have also been invited to the opening meetings.
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