Noam Schalit this week described each day since his son’s release as a “miracle” and insisted that fears about the release of Palestinian prisoners had proved to be largely unfounded.
In an interview with the Jewish News to mark one year since the former IDF soldier walked free from his 1,941-day ordeal at the hands of Hamas, Noam Schalit offered an insight into how his son Gilad (pictured right at a Barcelona football match) was enjoying life back in Israel and looking forward to travelling abroad, including to London.
Reflecting on the fact the 26-year-old recently spent his first Rosh Hashanah at home for six years, he said: “Every day, every holiday, every weekend, it’s a miracle for us. Gilad and the whole family have a great sense of renewal and he’s doing very well.”
He revealed that Gilad was currently mulling over which course to take when he begins university in September 2013 but is now “catching up on the gaps he missed” following his kidnapping while still a teenager in June 2006. “He’s been going out a lot, especially during the Succot holidays while his friends are on vacation from university. He’s also been hiking, cycling and has attended many sports events.”
As well as celebrating his birthday in August – according to Noam, it’s as if his son now also has a second birthday on the day he was freed – the Schalits have had no shortage of reasons to party this summer with the wedding of Gilad’s brother Yoel to Ya’ara Winkler.
“The couple met in 2009 in the Jerusalem protest tent during the campaign for Gilad, but avoided any celebration before he was freed,” Noam said.
“Some guests had never met Gilad or hadn’t seen him since he returned home – everyone wanted to shake his hand or exchange a few words. The couple were at the centre but he was the second focus.”
While Noam said Gilad was trying to look forward, rather than back, and the possibility of him writing a book had been “postponed”, his son this week spoke in public for the first time about his experiences in captivity. He recalled passing the time drawing pictures of his road in Israel to ensure he wouldn’t forget it and rolling up socks or T-shirts to play sports-oriented games. Noam believes, however, that he is yet to reveal even to his family every aspect of his experiences.
Since Gilad’s release, he has been able to indulge his love of sport by penning a weekly sports column for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper and by attending events like the NBA Finals and one of the world’s top football fixtures between Barcelona and Real Madrid during one of his foreign trips.
While acknowledging that, “maybe the first voyage abroad we were a little concerned”, Noam and wife Aviva have encouraged their son’s independence. Looking ahead to his visit to London for the B’nei B’rith Europe Young Adults Forum, Noam said: “He’s very much looking forward to it, especially to attending a football match. He watched a lot of the Olympics.”
Gilad also spoke in his television interview of the day he was freed and his fears that something could go wrong at the last minute as he travelled towards Egypt to be handed over.”
Asked whether he had ever thought during his family’s tireless campaign for Gilad that he might never see his son again, Noam told the Jewish News: “It was never certain he’d be freed, looking at the experiences of previous Israeli soldiers like Ron Arad. I only knew we could not retreat or give up, because I realised that if we did not fight the chances of seeing him back were quite low.”
Supporters across the world joined calls for his son to be freed and to be granted visits from the Red Cross, with Londoners joining vigils, marches and petitions. Hundreds, including then premier Gordon Brown, took part in the Jewish News’ campaign to sign Rosh Hashanah cards to the young Israeli.
He said: “We were very encouraged by the support of the Jewish communities worldwide including Australia, Canada and the United States. We needed all the support we could get worldwide. I think that the campaign in England was very effective because your government was very aware of this crisis.Gordon Brown wrote us a letter, ambassador Matthew Gould’s first mission was to come to our tent and William Hague also visited us in Jerusalem to express his support.”
For Noam, who had seen intense media speculation of an imminent deal come to nothing on previous occasions, scepticism remained even after finally receiving news in a 5am text message that a prisoner swap deal had been reached. “It still had to be approved by cabinet members and sometimes in the past there have been cases where the cabinet does not approve the prime minister’s recommendation. But as the day went on – and especially after it was published in the media at 7pm – I realised that they must approve it. I thought very few members of the cabinet will oppose this deal, because we had between 75 to 80 percent of public support.”
Addressing the vocal opposition to that exchange deal – which saw 1,027 Palestinians including those convicted over terror attacks set free – Noam stressed that his family had not taken part in the negotiations and “were not responsible for the price paid. We just asked that the government will fulfil its duty to bring back a soldier”. He added that “very few of those freed have been re-arrested and some of those that have were later released. The bottom line is that all the forecasts in Israel that there would be murders and buses would be exploded again were false.”
Noam is now embarking on a whole new campaign after accepting an offer to join Labour’s list for the next Knesset. While admitting that he had “never before” considered entering politics, he said MKs had an opportunity to influence life in Israel for the better and said he wished to speak up, in particular for those in the country’s north where he lives and also the south. Noam, who this week joined the family of Arad at a ceremony marking 26 years since his plane went down over Lebanon, also said that the issue of Israel’s missing soldiers would be one “I’m sure I won’t forget” if he enters the Knesset after the 22 January elections.
Noam, a member of Labour since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was adamant that he would have no qualms in opposing Netanyahu in the Knesset, despite the fact “we appreciate very much that he took the decision to cut a deal maybe against his beliefs and ideology”.
He said: “It has nothing to do with the efforts that he and former PM Olmert and decision-makers made to bring back a soldier they had sent to his mission. It has nothing to do with political views or beliefs and doesn’t mean I have to believe in the same ideology of the prime minister and his party.”
But today, on the first anniversary of Gilad’s release, his thoughts will inevitably be focused on his son and his future. He said that, despite irreversible damage to his left hand as a result of shrapnel, his son’s health was “quite good”.
Noam added: “I hope he will go to university to acquire a profession and, like every parent, we hope that Gilad will sooner or later find a girl and establish his own family.”
• Gilad Schalit on the set of Homeland, page 15