A year after emerging from Hamas captivity in Gaza, Gilad Shalit has hung up his gun and picked up a pen as the former captive soldier takes up a new life as a sports columnist for an Israeli newspaper.
But in stark contrast with the five years he spent in captivity in Gaza, when the young soldier’s profile was very high, Shalit is now doing his utmost to steer clear of the public eye.
And exactly a year after his release on October 18, 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, Shalit has made sure he is far from the media glare — on a private trip to the United States.
“He is trying to live his life, to make up for lost time, to go out with his friends and discover the world,” his father Noam Shalit told AFP.
Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants during a deadly cross-border raid in 2006, and held incommunicado in Gaza until October 2011, when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the ruling Hamas movement.
The controversial swap deal, which saw hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who were serving life for anti-Israeli attacks walk free, was claimed by both sides as a victory.
“The Shalit deal was one of the biggest achievements of the Palestinian resistance,” said Taher al-Nunu, spokesman for Gaza’s Hamas government. “It proves (capturing soldiers) is the best way to have prisoners released and put pressure on the Zionist occupation.”
For Palestinians, the release of the prisoners sparked huge celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet life quickly returned to normal after most of them returned to their families.
But in Israel, the mystery surrounding the captivity of the bespectacled soldier has lingered. So far, Shalit, now 26, has not sold his story to anyone and the Israeli media has honoured a rare agreement to leave him and his family in peace.
Unremarkable in appearance, a shy smile hovering over his lips, Shalit would pass largely unnoticed in the street if his image had not been imprinted on Israel’s consciousness, thanks to a relentless campaign by his parents who turned him into an icon of the people.
Passionate about basketball since childhood, Shalit says it was sport which helped him cope during the 1,941 days he was held in captivity.
In his first-ever interview, broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 television on Wednesday, Shalit said he devised games to keep himself occupied and dispel a gnawing fear that he would never get out alive.
“I would make a ball out of socks or a shirt, and throw it into the rubbish bin,” he said, according to excerpts of the transcript published by Yediot Aharonot.
“There was a common denominator between us, sport,” he said of his captors. “During the day I would play all kinds of games with them. Chess, dominoes.
“There were moments when a kind of emotion would arise, a kind of laughter, when we watched a good (football) game on television or a movie,” he said, relating their surprise on seeing an impressive Israeli goal during a Champions League match.
Over the last year, it has been sport which has helped him slowly return to normal.
Despite a hand injury dating back to his capture in 2006, Shalit often plays basketball or attends matches, although his presence always sparks a wave of postings on social networks, not to mention press attention.
And since June, he has been penning a weekly column in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper, following local and international sports.
The years in captivity have had a lasting effect on the young man, but he is slowly recovering, his father told AFP.
“It was not the same Gilad that we found, but he is feeling good, and he is slowly returning to normal life,” he admitted.
“He is more open and more sociable than he was at the outset,” he said of his son who spends a lot of time with people of his own age and playing sport.
“People he meets in the street want to have their photo taken with him — everyone recognises him, which is sometimes annoying for him but he hopes to start studying next year and regain some anonymity.”
Danny Kaplan, a sociologist at Bar Ilan University, says it will take some time before the public has had its fill of the Shalit story.
“Israeli society followed Shalit’s captivity experience closely, he was part of the nation’s living flesh,” he said.
“Shalit is evading the media, which is obvious given the abnormal attention he was subjected to,” he told AFP, saying released prisoners often enter “a place of silence” in order to readjust.
“The treatment of Shalit was an expression of messianism. A secular society sought to have a messiah, one that never arrives. But then he did,” Kaplan said.