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Supporters of captive soldier Gilad Shalit celebrate on his arrival to his home on 2011 in Mitzpe Hila, Israel. Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Riding on a public bus in Jerusalem for an American is a form of culture shock: the chaotic sprawl at the bus-stop instead of a line, the pushing and invasion of personal space. Israelis, let’s face it, have an international reputation for being rude. On the bus, as the driver passes a stop or closes the doors prematurely, the chorus of protests echo: “Rak rega! will you wait a minute?!?” Sometimes he listens. And on the bus, there is never quiet or privacy, that hovering silence that one usually feels on public transport in other cities. Carrying my infant daughter in a baby-sling, I would be offered endless instruction on how to secure her properly: ”She is not getting enough air!”; “you are bending her neck!”; “where’s your wife? Or: the time when the bus lurches to a halt, horns honking, passengers shouting, the surly driver now out of his seat, getting off the bus, and as passengers look on, and the traffic increasingly tangled, he guides an old man with a cane across the street.
In offering the rationale for the exchange of Gilad Shalit - one lone prisoner held by Hamas on the Gaza Strip after his kidnap on the border of Lebanon 1,941 days ago – for 1,027 prisoners, one Israeli commentator pointed to the “victory of good-old Israeli solidarity.” But solidarity suggests politics. The cafes in Israel this morning – a Jewish holiday, usually a time of bustling activity – are not empty because of politics. The hiking trails and parks, teeming with visitors this time of year, are not abandoned because of politics. Life has come to a standstill in Israel for the same reasons that living in Israel – just taking a bus for example – can be so maddening. What makes possible the rudeness, that violation of personal space, but also acts of surprising generosity, is intimacy and connection, making Gilad’s return not just a moment of political solidarity, but indescribably intense communal emotion.
So when the first fourteen seconds of video of Gilad from Egyptian television were broadcast this morning in an endless loop on Israeli TV, bringing to a crescendo the week of endless television coverage, the tears shed were not just of compassion, but of empathy and connection. The normally restrained and very secular-seeming Israel Broadcast Authority anchor, upon hearing news that Gilad had been transferred safely to Egyptian hands turned to his co-anchor, “Is this the time we should say Baruch Hashem – thank God – or not?” The Israel Army spokesman, choked up announces: “Gilad is in Israel; Gilad is with us.” Israelis do not feel like Gilad the captive is returning, but Gilad, the brother; Gilad, the son. Gilad is with us.
But the tears of joy yield to others as well. Not only did Israelis watch yesterday as the Supreme Court heard petitions from those protesting the agreement that has released the murderers of their sons and daughter, fathers and mothers, but those same relatives appeared on television with pictures of their loved ones: one proclaiming, “They are murdering my father a second time”; another, “the state is dancing in our blood.”
And for the rest of us, those who today left Israeli prisons for East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Egypt are not just abstractions, but part of a national psychic newsreel, images that will not easily go away. Many will think of Ahlam Tamimi, now free, who expressed regret that she was only able to kill fifteen Jews at the Sbarro pizza shop in Jerusalem in 2001; others will think of Abed al-Aziz Salaha in 2000, lifting his blood-soaked hands in victory after the lynching of two Israeli soldiers — now free. Me, I think of Abed al-Hadi Ganaim, now free, who commandeered a bus on a route I take every day to work, driving it off a cliff, killing sixteen Israelis. Most of all, I will think of Amed Amro, now free, behind the bombing of Café Hillel in 2003 in which seven people were murdered, including David Appelbaum and his daughter on the eve of her wedding, the former an emergency room doctor who helped save the life of one of my sons. Regrettably, in a country where it is not seven degrees of separation, but usually just one or two, everyone has their personal version of the newsreel.
As the first images emerge today, Gilad’s boyish innocence seems even more fragile – perhaps because of the harassing questions of the Egyptian interviewer what will you do now?” she asked, as if he might raise his hands and say, ‘I’m going to Disney World.’ As we watched, Uzi Dayan, former Israeli general, advised: “Gilad is returning home, we should return to our normal lives.” But the question for all Israelis even as we feel the overwhelming joy at Gilad’s return – we are also, despite appearances, fragile – is: Can we?