Jerusalem — A week after Gilad Shalit returned to Israel after being held in captivity for more than five years in Gaza, things were getting back to normal at the Shalit family home — sort of.
The Israel Police said they would remove a barrier placed in front of the family’s house in Mitzpe Hila. The flowers, placards and other paraphernalia that littered the streets of the northern Israeli town following the celebration marking Shalit’s return have been cleaned up. Even the Shalit protest tent opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem has been taken down and carted away.
But with the 10-day moratorium on Israeli media intrusion in the Shalits’ town set to expire, and with Israelis still eager for images of the newly released soldier, it’s unlikely that Gilad, 25, will be able to have a normal life anytime soon.
On Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres paid a visit to the Shalit family home, the first visit by an Israeli official. Almost immediately, photos and video of Peres and Gilad Shalit sitting side by side on the family couch landed on Israeli news websites and TV programs.
“You have no idea how thrilled I am to meet you here in your home alive, healthy and whole,” Peres said. “I came to express to you how proud I am, and how proud the entire nation is, by your ability to withstand extremely difficult conditions in captivity.”
Shalit thanked the president.
A day earlier, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima party, slammed the prisoner swap that brought Shalit home Oct. 18 in exchange for the release of 1,027 Arab prisoners, saying it has weakened Israel and strengthened Hamas.
Her criticism during interviews with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot and Reshet Bet Radio did not sit well with lawmakers in the coalition or the opposition. They swiftly assailed Livni for waiting until Shalit was freed to voice her opposition to the deal, saying it showed a lack of leadership. Livni reportedly did not go public earlier with her dissent at the request of Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the deal by a 26-3 vote.
In the few days since his release, Shalit has been stalked by news photographers lying in wait for his next move. He was pictured taking a short walk with his mother and several security guards on the first morning following his release, and riding a bicycle near his home. He also has played Ping-Pong. On the Simchat Torah holiday, he met with old friends, his father told reporters.
The Shalits are starting to learn that they have to maneuver to avoid the paparazzi. On Saturday, Shalit and his father left home early and took a side road to evade photographers on their way to a beach outing, reportedly at Gilad’s request. But a photographer from Haaretz was camping on the beach with his family and snapped a photo of the soldier swimming near the shore as his father watched over him.
“In the last few years I have taken many photographs of the Shalit family surrounded by countless cameras,” photographer Yaron Kaminsky told his newspaper. “It was nice to just run into them like that, at the beach, during Gilad’s first Saturday since being freed from captivity.”
Kaminsky said he told Noam Shalit that he had taken the photo and received his tacit approval to publish it.
Meanwhile, supporters and curiosity seekers continue to flock to Mitzpe Hila for a glimpse of Gilad or simply to have their photo taken in front of the Shalit family home. Many are leaving flowers, drawings and packages containing candy and other gifts for the family.
Noam has provided reporters with several updates since his son returned. On Oct. 20, he said he does not believe Hamas’ claims that Gilad was not tortured while in captivity.
“Gilad went through harsh things, at least in the first period. It is correct that after that, after that first period, the way he was treated improved,” the elder Shalit said.
During the same news conference in front of the family home, Noam Shalit also told reporters that Gilad had an appetite for food but that he was having trouble sleeping through the night. On the day of his release, Gilad appeared wan and pale.
Noam added that his son had few requests and that he was “going with the flow.”