Exactly a year ago, after 1,941 long days in captivity, SFC Gilad Shalit finally returned home as part of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange. Gilad came back underweight and suffering from vitamin deficiencies, but apart from that, relatively healthy. In honor of this date, for those of you who weren’t in Israel to experience it, IDF (Zahal) Blog is reliving the day of his return.
5:30 AM: Israeli citizens start waking up. Everyone gets up early in order to watch TV. Every channel is well-prepared, and no one leaves their house without making sure they’ll be back on time to watch the big event. The radio plays the song It’s so Good That You’re Home on endless repeat, and huge welcome signs hang from almost every house in the country. You could cut the tension with a knife.
SFC Gilad Shalit during his interview on Egyptian TV
10:00 AM: Gilad is interviewed by the state-sponsored Egyptian channel Nile TV. Despite his physical state, he speaks fluently and optimistically:
“I knew all along that my family and a great deal of other people in Israel are doing whatever they can for my release.”
10:15 AM: Sergeant 1st Class Gilad Shalit is identified for the first time at the Rafah crossing, crossing the Egypt-Gaza border.
10:23 AM: The first photos of Gilad, taken in the Rafah crossing, go live.
First photos of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit seen on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing.
Eyal Ben Yaish, a military photographer in reserves who was present at the scene, described the situation:
“I have children of my own, so Gilad’s story was touching to me on a personal level. You could say that I felt a sense of purpose in going and capturing Gilad’s first photos.
When I saw him for the first time, I felt relief as an Israeli citizen, who was excited to see Gilad returning home safe and sound.”
10:27 AM: Gilad is transferred from Hamas representatives to Egyptian ones.
10:35 AM: Israeli army representatives in the Kerem Shalom crossing greet SFC Gilad Shalit. He then crosses into Israeli territory for the first time in over five years.
Soldiers at Tel Nof air base watch a news broadcast of Gilad Shalit’s release. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
11:05 AM: The official announcement confirms what all Israelis were waiting to hear for 1,941 days — that SFC Gilad Shalit has returned home. Gilad is then taken to a nearby base, where he changes into his new IDF (Zahal) uniform and receives his ranks.
Meanwhile, IDF (Zahal) Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yoav “Poly” Mordechai announces to millions of people around the world the successful conclusion of the prisoner swap and Gilad’s safe return to his family:
“The commanders and soldiers of the IDF (Zahal) respect you and are proud of your tenacity and resilience throughout these years. We will continue to support you for as long as you need.
On behalf of your fellow soldiers, who together with your entire generation bear the responsibility for our country’s security… in the name of the IDF (Zahal) in its entirety, I congratulate you and your family upon your safe return to us.”
11:06 AM: The first official IDF (Zahal) press announcement regarding the return of SFC Gilad Shalit is published on the IDF (Zahal) Twitter account. Lt. Sacha Dratwa, Head of the IDF (Zahal) Spokesperson’s Unit New Media Desk, recounts:
“I fought during the Second Lebanon War. I saw the enemy with my own eyes and I know what he’s capable of. So when I saw Gilad crossing over — that he was healthy and well — I cried.
I was very proud of my country, and even prouder to serve in the IDF (Zahal). In that moment, I understood the difference between us and our enemies — for us, the life of even one soldier is worth everything.”
First online announcement of SFC Gilad Shalit’s return.
11:58 AM: Gilad goes through his initial medical examination, and speaks to his parents on the phone. This is the first time he hears their voices in over five years.
12:47 PM: Upon arriving at the Tel Nof Air-base, Gilad is welcomed by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Secretary of Defense Ehud Barak, and IDF (Zahal) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
The doors of the helicopter open, Gilad steps out and salutes Prime Minister Netanyahu and Lt. Gen. Gantz. The Prime Minister, in turn, welcomes him and says, “It’s so good to have you home.”
SFC Gilad Shalit Salutes IDF (Zahal) Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz
An unprecedented amount of people are glued to their screens, watching TV, only wanting to see Gilad come home. Some cry. Most, if asked today, can recount exactly where they were at the time. Shakked Amir, then a soldier who was present at the Kerem Shalom crossing during the prisoner exchange, recounts:
“When I saw him standing on his feet, after five long years, it was like the return of a family member — like a brother, or a cousin that I haven’t seen in years. He was finally with us again.”
13:08 PM: Gilad Shalit is reunited with his father, who welcomes him with a warm hug, and then, away from the cameras, with the rest of his family.
Lt. Col. Gabi Elmishali, commander of the Unit for Detecting Missing Soldiers, accompanied the Shalit family throughout the release. He describes his visit to the family on the night prior to the official announcement of Gilad’s release.
“It was very exciting, a lot of people came to congratulate them… Of course, I was happy, but I knew it wasn’t over. On one hand, you’re glad for the decision to release Gilad, and on the other hand, there’s the fear, the suspicion of what will happen at the last moment. But the happiness was wonderful.”
SFC Gilad Shalit meeting his father after more than 5 years of captivity
17:00 PM: Gilad finally arrives home, to his house in Mitzpe Hila. The place is flooded with well-wishers from all over the country who came in with signs, balloons, flags and custom-made shirts. The cameras get a glimpse of him in the car with his family before he’s whisked away to his house.
Several days later, his father reported to the media that, “All in all, Gilad feels well.”