JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from five years of isolated captivity in the Gaza Strip Tuesday to a joyous reception, but other former captives said coping with liberty again would also pose tough challenges.
Initial footage showed the 25-year-old Shalit in a daze as his former captors and Egyptian mediators, who helped facilitate his release, escorted him on his short journey to freedom.
In a hasty Egyptian television interview organized before he was returned to Israel, Shalit appeared overwhelmed and daunted by the multi-lingual exchange in Arabic, English and Hebrew.
“I don’t feel so good from this whole event ... to see so many people after such a long time ... after not having seen people for such a long time. I am on edge,” Shalit said in Hebrew.
The soldier was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and grabbed him from his tank, holding him incommunicado ever since.
They used him as a bargaining card to negotiate the freedom of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Mickey Zeifa, an army reserve colonel who was held as a prisoner of war by Egypt in the 1973 Middle East war, said Shalit would require careful management to enable him to settle back to the life he knew before his capture.
“It takes a very long time for a person to get back on course ... you mustn’t crowd him,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“In my case ... the celebrations around me, which at first were flattering and moving, brought me down. Sometimes the return is a trauma in and of itself, no less difficult than captivity,” he added.
Psychologist Rivka Tuval-Mashiach told Israel’s Channel 2 television that Shalit would need time to absorb the fact he has become such a huge public figure during his prolonged absence.
“Initially, Gilad is not aware that he is the property of the entire country and he does not know that the entire country knows who he is. But he will need a bit of time and mostly a lot of quiet and warmth from his close family,” she said.
“He will need to be given time even to the physiological changes of light and darkness, not to be afraid to speak. We don’t know if he suffered violence or was tortured, but even in the first instances after he was back in Israel we saw that his frozen state thawed a little, with a first smile.”
The Islamist group Hamas has said it treated Shalit well during his captivity.
Gidi Arenhalt, who spent eight months in a Syrian jail after the 1973 Middle East war, told Army Radio it was utterly wrong to force an intrusive television interview on the naturally shy Shalit so soon after his release.
“We should all learn from this that we should leave Gilad alone now because the last thing he needs is what he got from the Egyptian TV,” he said.
Ori Shahak, a fighter pilot captured by Syria in 1973 who was also held for eight months, said he thought the Israeli military had learned from previous cases of incarceration.
“(After coming home) we immediately went through a security debriefing. There was no regard given to our emotional state. No one asked me how I was. The only thing the investigators cared about was ‘what did you tell the Syrians’,” he said.
“I am happy to see that the defense ministry and forces have learnt the lessons, keeping the media away from Gilad and his family. The treatment he will receive is completely different from what we went through,” Shahak added.
Police moved reporters well away from Shalit’s family home before his planned return later in the day, hoping to give the young man some privacy to help him re-adjust to his new life.
Shalit’s mother, Aviva, said after hearing of the impending swap deal that she realized that the joy of getting her son back was “mixed with a lot of fear, obviously this will not be the same boy that we sent (to serve in the army).”
Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; editing Philippa Fletcher