Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00

Community welcomes return of Gilad Shalit

 By Richard Bronstein

The Jewish Free Press

pg 1 photoAbout 40 people gathered at the Calgary JCC at 6:00 am on Monday to watch live television coverage of the return to Israel of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who had been held hostage by the militant Islamic group Hamas for five years and four months.


Although some had been up hours earlier that morning to see the event live, those at the JCC were nevertheless shocked to see the wan and thin 25 year old soldier finally brought home to Israel. They also noted that during the transfer process – from an undisclosed location in Gaza and then to Egypt, Shalit was without eyeglasses until he reached Israeli soil.

Many of those in attendance were also appalled by an apparent “ambush interview” of Shalit by Egyptian television, who asked a series of clumsy questions, such as ‘why didn’t you send out more videos during your captivity.’ According to sources, the prisoner exchange protocol was supposed to prevent such an interview but the Egyptians did it anyway in an attempt to capture favourable headlines for themselves.

The group of viewers at the Calgary JCC included Israeli Calgarians, some teenagers, several mothers with children in tow waiting to take their kids to school, and several Federation and JCC officials. Snacks – humous, pita and fresh Israeli salad - were generously prepared by Efrat Shemsh-Idelson, Calgary Jewish Federation’s coordinator of youth programming.

While no one danced the hora, there was quiet satisfaction that a prisoner swap had finally been agreed by both sides and that Shalit could return home, even though there was a shared foreboding in the JCC gym about possible future kidnappings by Palestinian and Arab radical groups.

Live television coverage of the event from Israel was very strictly controlled by the military. It featured the obligatory welcome home from Israel’s president, prime minister, and military chiefs.  Then it was time for a fast embrace from family before Shalit was taken to a nearby military hospital to check his health.  He was quickly cleared and then taken by helicopter to the Shalit home in Mitzpe Hila in the Western Galilee.

Inside Israel there were several respectful days of relative media silence about the prisoner exchange, but the usual debates soon began springing up all over again.

Many of the Palestinian prisoners released in the exchange committed horrendous terrorist attacks in Israel and the families of those victims expressed their anguish at the release of those prisoners. Many commentators also pointed out that the one-sided exchange – Gilad Shalit for 1,027 prisoners – would significantly encourage more kidnappings of Israeli soldiers for ransom.

That sentiment was succinctly summarized by Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for The Boston Globe, who wrote, “To bring Shalit home, the Jewish state has effectively condemned tens – or scores, or even hundreds – of other victims to death.  This is capitulation to terror.  Israel’s friends should be appalled.”

Debate has also arisen about the conduct of Prime Minister Netanyahu. While he has been widely praised for making this decision, it was pointed out by many Israeli commentators that Netanyahu has in the past been a very vociferous critic of prisoner exchanges and there are questions about why the prime minister seems to have changed his tune now.

Debate is also being fueled about preparedness in the IDF with reminders that Shalit’s capture is widely regarded as an operational error.  The kidnapping took place on June 25, 2006 near the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza. Hamas militants tunneled under the border and infiltrated an Israeli army base. Two Palestinians and two IDF soldiers were killed and three others wounded.

Shalit’s tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, wounding him and leading to his capture. The next day the Palestinians offered to release him in exchange for prisoners. Israel immediately launched a rescue mission but it was unsuccessful.

Many times over the five-year period he was held, negotiations between Israel and Hamas, through various middlemen, were started and stopped.

Throughout his period of kidnapping Shalit was denied communication with his family, save for one video tape, and was refused access by the International Red Cross. These issues, as well as the relative silence of world human rights organizations over the cross-border kidnapping, have long rankled many Israelis.

[photo caption]

Gilad Shalit salutes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back turned) on his return to after being kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza for five years and four months.

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