Gilad Schalit, once a captive, is now a soldier again

I have been crying since 10:24 this morning. After three hours, my television was finally on mute, but suddenly my eyes caught a flurry of activity: grainy footage of a tiny but unmistakable youngster, walking in a slanted way and being propped or dragged under his arms by people who obviously controlled him. It was the first image of Gilad Schalit emerging from captivity. He was wearing a button-down stiff-collar shirt, so new it still had original packing creases, what looked like jeans, and a black baseball cap.

The staid reporters on Channel 2 choked up in unison, they sniffled in stereo as they saw these pictures that made a national, five-and-a-half year dream into a flesh and blood reality. Over these years, I had often told myself Schalit was already dead or would be killed, to avoid drowning in unrealized hopes, given all the time and carnage since his capture. Seeing him was like the resurrection of a lost beloved, and yes, I cried – for his parents made him one of us to every Israeli.

For over five years, Gilad Schalit’s face decorated our lives every day and everywhere, in videos and photos taken from his life before captivity. The Gilad of these images is remarkably lovable. I was captivated by those clips, the way many of us cannot tear our eyes away from adorable toddlers in those fleeting years when they are both little people but still convey irrepressible naïveté and delight.

To see him now, alive and animated, was remarkable: now midway through his 20s and having suffered a five-year horror, he still looks smooth and shy. He is a bit more pale, there is fear, confusion, perhaps some cynicism in his wandering eyes, but he radiates perfect innocence.

Then, the IDF received him. Upon reaching Israeli soil, his first act was to change into a military uniform. The kid’s eyes could hardly focus – perhaps from meeting so many people after largely lonely confinement, as it seems – or perhaps unused to sunlight. When he walked out of the trailer with his new clothes, he absently walked to his right – where an IDF officer gently stopped him and guided him to his left. I’ve seen the footage dozens of times now and it’s unclear if Schalit could comprehend or even care which way he walked.

Yet within the hour, he knew how to do one thing very well: salute. With the footage repeated endlessly, in slow motion, you get a real good look. This is no ordinary salute that he gave to the Prime Minister, the Chief of Staff, the Defense Minister. It was graceful, gorgeous – like a dancer whose teacher drilled him to lift elbow first, then wrist, lovingly, and let this propel the whole body upward – “stretch that neck, look at the horizon, imagine yourself rising to venerate your superiors!” I can almost hear her say. But my hunch tells me that the person who reminded him to salute, and how, was a man, and probably one in a uniform too.

It worked. Gilad Schalit transformed, before my crying eyes, from a liberated boy in a baseball cap and jeans, into a proud soldier again. Of course it wasn’t the real Gilad Schalit who transformed, it was the symbol of Gilad Schalit, one that the government and the army needed to take back from the national image of the innocent boy.

I felt a painful irony: For over five years, Noam and Aviva Schalit made him into everyone’s son and that’s how they got him released; then the state made him back into a soldier – which is how he got captured.

One commentator said that the ritual conveyed an important message to all Israeli soldiers, or future soldiers: if you are captured, the state will save you. I understand that. I just interpreted it a bit differently: “this soldier could be you.”

Of course I don’t know the real, flesh and blood Gilad Schalit and he may very well embrace his soldier identity. But that’s the private Gilad, not the national symbol.

Finally: I would like to now banish Hamas forever, for the crime of blackmailing their enemies by barbaric treatment of a human being who was denied even the basic human right given to prisoners, of contact with their loved ones – to win the freedom of many convicted citizen-butchers (among others). I normally spare no words in criticizing my own government and I won’t spare any now for Hamas. Here are my unsolicited thoughts to the Palestinian people: degradation of human life will never be limited to the enemy – even now, Hamas has reduced your prisoners to one-thousandth of an Israeli. Please think about Gilad Schalit on your way to the ballot box – inshallah soon – and you will see the fate of your own sons and daughters, if they ever run afoul of this gang.