Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit confronts unfamiliar celebrity
REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was a shy, gangly teenager from a remote northern town when he was taken captive and dragged over the border to the Gaza Strip five years ago. He returned as a national icon and one of the country’s most recognized faces.
As Shalit awoke Wednesday to his first day of freedom since 2006, he embarked on a long road of rehabilitation and readjustment.
But in addition to untreated shrapnel wounds, malnutrition and sunlight-deficiency disorders caused by being kept in an isolated indoor cell, the 25-year-old soldier will have to confront an unfamiliar celebrity that will likely follow him for the rest of his life.
His picture is everywhere. Over the last five years, Shalit's image was plastered on bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards, including one in New York City. There were life-size cardboard cutouts of the soldier placed at protests and outside the Israeli prime minister's house to serve as constant reminders.
Now supporters who held cross-country marches to keep his captivity in the news and manned a protest tent in Jerusalem are struggling with how to give Shalit space and privacy, two things that Israel's close-knit culture of informality and camaraderie don't always provide.
It's having mixed success. Israeli police tried to declare the Shalit's family home in Mitzpeh Hila off-limits, but that didn't stop hundreds of well-wishers and journalists from swarming the place Tuesday night. When Shalit took a walk Wednesday morning with his family, photographers were there to catch every step.
"For five and a half years, no one embraced you," wrote Maariv newspaper columnist Ben Caspit on Wednesday. "Now you may be smothered with embraces." (Link is in Hebrew)
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking heat in the Israeli media for appearing to use Shalit's release as a photo op. On Tuesday, the prime minister –- with a cameraman in tow -- personally welcomed the soldier as he disembarked from an Israeli helicopter. When Shalit reunited with his father for the first time, Netanyahu was criticized for standing in the photo frame.
During a media briefing Tuesday night, Shalit's father said his son is not ready to face the glare of the public spotlight and asked Israelis to respect the family's privacy.
"It's difficult for him to be exposed to many people after being in isolation for such a long time," Noam Shalit said.
-- Edmund Sanders
Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Photo: Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, center, is seen next to his mother, Aviva, as they go for a walk outside their home in Mitzpeh Hila on Wednesday. Credit: Nir Elias / Reuters