(JTA) — When Noam Shalit first learned that his son, Gilad, was missing, his thoughts turned to his own father.
Noam’s twin brother, Yoel, disappeared in the Golan Heights in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. Their father immediately left for the war-scarred plateau in search of Yoel, who was 19, the same age as Gilad when Hamas militants abducted him in a 2006 cross-border raid.
Yoel was eventually identified among the dead. Fear that Gilad, an introverted basketball fan, could share the same fate prompted Noam Shalit to give up his natural penchant for privacy and become the face of a campaign to get his son back, which resulted in to a prisoner exchange in 2011.
“It was like being thrown 30 years back”, Noam Shalit told the New York Times just months after launching the campaign to free Gilad.
Noam Shalit died on Wednesday, aged 68, exactly 13 years after moving with his wife into a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem to bring attention to his son’s captivity. He suffered from leukaemia, reported Ynet, the Israeli news site.
Benny Gantz, the defense minister, who was a military chief in 2011 and helped negotiate Gilad Shalit’s release, said in his condolences that “he never gave up hope of seeing his son again”.
The capture of her son forced Shalit, an engineer, to become the public face of a movement. His fierce fatherly love throbbed through the cloak of his calm demeanor, and he won the devotion of Israeli parents, locked in a cycle of lavishing attention on their children, then leaving them to the jaws of perpetual risk of death or capture.
“I’m here because if it was my son, I would want someone to support me too.” Michal Naamani, a protester handing out yellow ribbons, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2011, shortly before the exchange of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners resulted in Shalit’s release.
“Gilad Shalit is a national trauma,” wrote Yediot Ahronot columnist Sima Kadmon in 2010. “He is the symbol of our impotence. About the fact that the Israel Defense Forces can’t solve everything and the fact that everything can’t be solved by force, and maybe everything can’t always be solved. »
Noam Shalit was relentless and antagonized successive Israeli governments, just as they feigned his campaign. Previous mass exchanges of a handful of Israeli prisoners or corpses for thousands of suspected terrorists had become bad business: sometimes terrorists returned to work almost immediately after being released.
But Noam Shalit’s steady campaign was hard to resist. Posters of Gilad Shalit in uniform, thin, childish and clumsy, plastered public spaces across the country. Noam Shalit appealed directly to the Palestinians. He offered to Hamas to become a hostage to release his son. In 2010, Noam Shalit led a march from his village in northern Israel to Jerusalem. “We won’t wait at home any longer,” he said as he left for the march.
“It’s a debate between the head and the heart, and everyone has both,” said Yaacov Amidror, a general in the Israeli reserves. said at the time, reflecting the popular view of the security establishment. “Those who let the head take over feel that there is a limit to what a state should pay. I think that in principle negotiations should not take place with terrorist organizations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally took another view, getting to the heart of Noam Shalit and his supporters and closing the deal. Terrorist victims among those released cried tears of frustration upon their release, but scenes of Gilad and Noam reuniting swamped the news, and polls showed Israelis supported the terms of the release.
Noam Shalit stayed in the limelight for a while, planning to run for Knesset in 2012 on the Labor Party ticket – his experience with his son nurtured a disdain for hard lines, and he said he would talk to Hamas to make peace.
Soon, however, the family returned to their private ways. If Noam Shalit made a public appearance, it was to thank his supporters, to whom he remained intensely grateful. “The feeling that the country was behind us was overwhelming,” he told Israeli expats in California in 2014. “What started as a lonely crusade has turned into a mass movement.”
In 2020, Gilad Shalit and his fiancée, Nitzan Shabbat, announced via Instagram that they were engaged; The photo of the robust and intensely happy couple was their only concession to an audience who wondered what had happened to the pallid bespectacled boy who had disappeared.
When they got married five months later, the family invited family and close friends, who were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.