Noam Shalit says he's gotten used to many things: to the fact that almost every Israeli now recognizes him, and to the fact that he of all people a reserved, quiet scientist is approached by well-wishers everywhere and all the time. They wish him luck and courage, and in doing so remind him constantly of what has happened to his family.
Noam Shalit is the father of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Palestinian extremists on the border between Israel and Gaza on June 25 of last year. Palestinian mediators and the Israeli government have been negotiating the price of Shalit's freedom for more than nine months. Shalit was 19 when he was kidnapped.
How many Palestinians must Israel release from its prisons for the kidnappers to free their single prisoner Gilad Shalit? Until an answer to this question is found, the life led by the Shalit family in its village in the green hills of the Galilee is subject to the tides of hope a hope that grows every time the closing of a deal seems imminent, only to fade again when Noam Shalit subsequently learns from the car radio or from TV that the numbers ratio that will end the suffering of his son has not been found yet. "You don't get used to that," says Noam Shalit, the father.
"Every time, disappointment is an abyss we fall into," the father says. Since the kidnapping, the engineer has been working only part-time, spending the rest of the time "talking to everyone who might be able to help."
"Bring Gilad back to me," his wife, who has decided not to talk to the press, told him at the outset, he says. The 52-year-old man has devoted himself fully to this task. He appears on every talk show he can and is omnipresent in Israeli media even if one can tell that he doesn't like being the center of attention. "It's not about me. I'm just an instrument that must achieve a goal," says Noam Shalit, speaking in his living room decorated with photos of his son. The large, airy house is filled with tasteful souvenirs of shared vacations that give an impression of the happy life this family was torn away from.
There is reason to believe the Shalits can expect their son to return soon. While the last sign of life a formulaic, probably dictated letter in their son's handwriting is from September of 2006, high-ranking Palestinian politicians continue to give assurances that Gilad is alive. The fate of the soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose kidnapping by Hezbollah last summer triggered Israel's war against Hezbollah, is much more uncertain. There has never been a sign of life from either of the two.
Kidnapping means hope for hundreds of Palestinian families
And something else is different too in the case of the Shalits: While they are not in direct contact with Gilad's kidnappers, there are at least the Palestinians one can talk to. That is why the Shalits have chosen to proceed differently from the families of those kidnapped in Lebanon, who face a wall of silence from Hezbollah and can place their hope only in international mediators. "Of course I also go to these meetings with (US Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice," says Shalit, whose T-shirt features the faces of his son and the two other kidnapped soldiers. He and his entire family are also French citizens, and so he is also in constant contact with te French government. But, he says, the dialogue with the Palestinians is more important.
Over the past months, Shalit has tirelessly journeyed from his village in northern Israel to visit Palestinians injured by Israeli fire. He has tried to enter Gaza to search for his son there, and was eventually prevented from doing so by the Israeli government. He has offered himself as a hostage to be exchanged for his son and has answered every request for an interview from Palestinian networks. But most importantly he has learned one thing that the kidnapping of his son means hope for hundreds of Palestinians families.
During the last exchange of prisoners so far in 2004 Israel released 435 prisoners in exchange for one kidnapped businessman and the return of three corpses. Currently several thousand Palestinians are detained in Israeli prisons, some of them without even being charged with anything. Gilad Shalit is a pawn that could lead to hundreds of Palestinian families getting their sons and fathers back. Noam Shalit knows this. "We're not the only ones waiting for an exchange to finally come about," Shalit says, adding that he has come to understand, during the past months, that prisoners are a very serious issue for Palestinian society. "We have to finally end this crisis that has already caused thousands to suffer." The Israeli army responded to the kidnapping of Shalit with the massive military operation "Summer Rain," during which hundreds of Palestinians were killed or injured.
Until June 25, 2006, the Shalit family Noam, the father; Aviva, the mother; and three children aged between 16 and 23 lived an idyllic life. On weekends, the family shared this idyll with stressed city dwellers. Noam Shalit has built two small holiday cottages, complete with veranda and whirlpool, in the lovingly kept garden. Couples spent carefree days there with a view of the mountains and the Mediterranean.
Aviva Shalit, Gilad's mother, who did voluntary work for an environmental organization, brought the guests omelettes and avocado salad for breakfast; apart from that, there was nothing to disturb the visitors. The Shalits are quiet, pleasant people. Their son is a "shy, introverted" bookworm whose favorite subjects are math and physics, his father says.
Then came the Sunday on which Noam Shalit, on his way to the office, heard on the radio that there had been a "serious incident" along the southern part of the border to Gaza. He didn't think much about it. His son, newly drafted and a member of a tank division like his father and his uncles, had told him he was stationed somewhere else. And so it was Gilad's little sister who was home alone when the army rang the doorbell. At age 16 she was old enough, by the Israeli military code, to be confronted with reality: The soldiers dispatched by the military reported to the young girl that her brother was missing, adding that two other soldiers had been killed during the attack by a Palestinian strike force on the Israeli patrol.
The news triggered a horrifying sense of déjà-vu in Noam Shalit: When his twin brother was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was also told, at first, that his brother was missing. Hope glimmered only when witnesses testified to having seen Gilad being led into Gaza. "If Gilad walked, his injury can't have been too serious." The blood on the combat vest he had left behind indicated that he had been wounded.
Gilad is to be taken to Cairo by his kidnappers
There followed weeks during which the journalists camping out in the village of Mitzpe Hila whose population is 150 outnumbered the residents. It was only following the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and the war triggered by that kidnapping that the media caravan traveled on. The Shalits were left behind. They sat in their cellar, heard the Katyusha rockets fired across the nearby border by Hezbollah explode in the surrounding hills and thought about their son and brother. "You can't switch that off," says Noam Shalit, looking at the mountains of Lebanon from the wooden veranda of the small holiday house. He would like to believe that his son is being held in humane conditions in Gaza that a good-hearted Palestinian woman is cooking for him and that someone speaks to him occasionally. "Maybe he's sitting in a cellar, like we did during the war, or maybe in an apartment refashioned as a prison."
The head of the family characterizes the past nine months as a "crash course in public relations work" a learning process he had to come to terms with on his own. To this day, Shalit cannot understand why the Israeli military didn't provide his family with someone to support them psychologically. "No one explained to us how to live through something like this. We had to find out for ourselves." He still hears about new developments mainly from television. "The government doesn't want to disclose any details to us, the families, because it could hurt us," he says. What kinds of details could be so terrible they don't want to share them with us, he wonders.
At some point, Noam Shalit will receive the phone call ordering him to Cairo. He doesn't want to believe in any other possibility. In Egypt he will then meet his son, who is to be taken to Cairo and kept there until a first group of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners has been released. Shalit knows nothing more about the process that is to bring his family back together again. His government keeps him guessing.
Shalit prefers not to think about the state his son will be in when he comes home. "We deal with one day at a time," he says. He knows this ordeal will never really be over, because the kidnapping has changed his family permanently. And for a brief moment he is able, after all, to discern one comical aspect in the whole miserable drama: "I know something else too," he says with a smile. "It will give Gilad a terrible shock to google his own name and see the hundreds of thousands of entries about him. He's so shy, after all."