When Noam Shalit was called to the office of the president of his company one morning in June 2006, he found Israeli Defense Force officers waiting to see him.
They were there to inform him that his son, Gilad, had been kidnapped by Hamas and taken to Gaza.
Shalit addressed 150 people gathered May 7 at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth for a program sponsored by Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. He was introduced by federation president Seth S. Gross.
Shalit, whose twin brother was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, also wondered how he was going to tell his elderly parents that 40 years after losing a son they might also lose a grandson.
That day began a more than five-year journey that would include Shalit’s decision to wage a media campaign to prod the government into action. “We went from being an anonymous Israeli family to the front page,” said Shalit.
Gilad was captured when Hamas operatives dug a tunnel from Gaza to Kerem Shalom and staged a raid in which two soldiers were also killed.
Just 19 when captured, Gilad was released in 2011 in a controversial exchange through which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including terrorists, were released.
“Some people felt the price Israel paid to bring Gilad home was too high,” Shalit acknowledged. He knew some would say that “these prisoners with blood on their hands will go back to terrorism. Our son, Gilad, will not be the last kidnapped soldier.”
The elder Shalit declined to give details about his son’s treatment, but said, “It was no picnic.” However, he noted it was to Hamas’s benefit to keep Gilad healthy and alive because of his usefulness as a “bargaining chip.”
A big basketball fan, Gilad would often shoot rolled socks into a garbage can to pass the time while imprisoned, said his father.
Shalit said his family learned from experience and lessons from the past as they fought for their son’s release. That included not placing too much faith in the government, a lesson the family of Ron Arad learned the hard way, he said. Arad’s aircraft was shot down over Lebanon in 1986; he is presumed to have died in captivity in the mid-1990s.
“People were really traumatized by the Ron Arad case,” said Shalit, who added he was determined his son would not meet the same fate.
Instead, the Shalit family’s grassroots campaign drew support from Israelis and others around the world.
“To those of you who wrote letters and signed petitions to get Gilad released I am deeply grateful,” said Shalit.
However, that pressure took years to yield results. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, said he would never negotiate to release Palestinian prisoners.
“‘Never say never,’ I advised,” recalled Shalit, who quickly realized “our prime minister was in no hurry to bring our son home.”
There were “crushing disappointments” from the administrations of Olmert and his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and failed military campaigns to free Gilad. A wave of suicide bombings shifted the focus from Gilad and his Hamas captors to Hizbullah, based in Lebanon.
Desperately searching for signs that Gilad was still alive, and with Hamas flagrantly violating the Geneva Conventions by refusing visits by the Red Cross, Shalit “reached out to my enemies,” including Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal, gaining widespread media attention. Months later a letter from Gilad arrived and a year later an audiotape. With the Egyptians failing as negotiators, the Germans stepped in, and the Shalits received a videotape.
The frustrated family began organizing protest marches, joined by thousands of Israelis demanding the government negotiate for Gilad’s release. As “a long crusade turned into a mass movement,” the family were overwhelmed by the feeling “all Israel was behind us.”
They set up a tent in March 2010 across from the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where “through the bitter winter and hot Israeli summer we never left” and were visited by people from all over the world.
With pressure mounting on Netanyahu, the prisoner exchange was agreed upon. On Oct. 18, 2011, said Shalit, “my son Gilad was reborn.”
“The first morning home he wanted to take a ride and feel the sunlight he was denied,” said Shalit. In response to questions from the audience Shalit said his son does not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, although he did sustain a permanent injury to his left hand. He also reported he drives, and has a girlfriend and a job.
Shalit said he believes that exchanging the prisoners for his son, rather than weakening Israel, “has made Israel stronger.”