By Adam Popescu, 10/20/2011
Hundreds Gather to Welcome Gilad Shalit’s Release from Captivity
In commemoration of the prisoner exchange that led to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after five years of captivity, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Israeli Consulate and the Israeli Leadership Council held a welcome home event in his honor at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.
Approximately 1,000 people gathered to watch Shalit, imprisoned by the terrorist group Hamas since 2006, on a live feed from Israel with cameras following his emotional return journey to his mountain hometown of Mitzpe Hila, just south of the Lebanese border.
“The event began the moment his helicopter touched down, as we sang the national anthem for both countries,” Consul General of Israel David Siegel said.
As the moving images played out on a large monitor, the crowd sang the hatikva, the Israeli national anthem and the U.S. national anthem.
“It was a remarkable day,” said Assemblymember Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). “I think Shalit’s release stands for hope at a time when we all are looking for signs of hope…having been to Israel and met with his family…I know the anguish the families have felt and I know that it’s so important to maintain that sense of hope and optimism because in this case he’s home safely.”
Shalit, who was wounded at the time of his capture and attack, never received the appropriate medical care during his imprisonment, and appeared visibly gaunt and malnourished on screen after 1,942 days in isolation. In 2006, Shalit was captured by Palestinians who tunneled into Israel from Gaza, killed two other members of his tank crew, and abducted Shalit.
This was the first time in 26 years that Israel was able to bring back a live soldier, Siegel said, calling it “a moment of hope.”
Siegel also served in the Israel Defense Forces in the early 1980s, and said as part of Israel’s solemn pact between the state and its people whose army service is compulsory, we “will do whatever it takes to bring back” lost soldiers.
Terms of the release included freeing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, which has stirred controversy both domestically and abroad, as statistically, “Sixty percent revert back to terror,” Siegel said. This is not Israel’s first prisoner exchange — over the last 30 years Israel has released about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners to gain freedom for 19 Israelis, and the bodies of eight others.
“There is a deep Jewish value of sanctity of life,” Siegel said, before touching on the moral dilemma of freeing known terrorists. “Without this deal he would never be released…it’s not a happy situation, but it’s a careful balance.”
As per the deal, 27 Palestinian women prisoners were released first. After Shalit was moved from Gaza to Southern Israel, 450 male prisoners were released to Gaza and the West Bank, with a small number sent to Turkey and other countries throughout the Middle East. The remaining Palestinians are to be freed in the coming weeks.
Thousands of miles across the ocean, as Israelis celebrated the release of Shalit, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the town of Ramallah in the West Bank, waving Palestinian flags and holding pictures of prisoners, rejoicing over the release of the 27 freed women. With the West Bank locked in a power struggle between Hamas and the Fatah political party, the move could shift dominance back towards Hamas. Feuer summed up the ethical conundrum at work in releasing prisoners and explained Israel’s reasoning for doing so.
“I think the prisoner exchange, one for over 1,000, exemplifies the deeply held belief in Israel that every life is precious. If you can save a life, particularly of someone who has put their life on the line for the state of Israel, I think it is worth it,” Feuer said.