By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A brief biography on the website of a campaign for his freedom was all many Israelis knew of the life of Gilad Shalit until he appeared, gaunt and tired, on television on Tuesday after Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers freed him from five years' captivity.
His breathing sometimes labored and his speech faltering,
the soldier offered the first details of his life in captivity in an interview with Egyptian television following his release in an exchange for a thousand Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
"They were long years," he said, speaking Hebrew through an Arabic translator. "But I always thought the day would come when I finally got out of captivity."
Last seen pleading, calmly, for his life in a videotape released in September 2009 by the militants who held him, Shalit on Tuesday said he hoped his release would lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and he missed his family and friends.
In captivity, the tank crewman became a haunting symbol for Israelis torn between a desire to bring him home and a gnawing awareness that his freedom would not come cheap.
But details of his personal life are sparse. The website's summary reads:
"Gilad Shalit, a son to Noam and Aviva and a brother to Yoel and Haddas, was born in Nahariya on 28 August 1986. When he was two years old, his family moved to Mitzpe Hila in the western Galilee. Gilad studied at Maona elementary school and middle school at Kfar Vradim. He studied at Manor-Kavri high school and excelled in science. In 2005, Gilad enlisted in the tank corps and served in Battalion 71 of the 188th Regiment."
Beyond that sketch of a typical young Israeli barely started out on adult life, there had been little to say about him as he had sat, hidden and largely incommunicado somewhere in Gaza.
RITE OF PASSAGE
His parents, Noam, an engineer, and Aviva won widespread sympathy among compatriots, for whom sending their children to do military service is a shared rite of passage.
After his release under an Egyptian- and German-brokered deal to swap 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including more than 300 serving life terms for attacks on Israelis, the freedom campaign's website read "Gilad is Home" and showed a photograph taken of him in an Israeli army uniform after his release at a border crossing with Egypt.
Such prisoner exchange deals between Israel, Arab countries it has battled and Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups are nothing new for Israelis, who have traditionally seen repatriation of their nation's captured sons in Biblical terms.
"Thy children shall come again to their own border," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quoting from the Book of Jeremiah, said last week in announcing the deal with Hamas, an Islamist group that is one of Israel's most bitter enemies.
For Palestinians, the release from Israeli prisons of men and women whose life stories are also typical of a region locked in conflict for generations, was also a cause to celebrate those whom many regard as heroes in a struggle for statehood.
Shalit, now 25, was seized on June 25, 2006 by militants who tunneled their way out of Gaza and then surprised his tank crew along the frontier fence, killing two of his comrades and spiriting him into the enclave.
The former Israeli armed forces chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, said in May that Israel had been unable to locate Shalit after years of trying and urged that a "reasonable price" be paid for his liberty.
His parents have campaigned hard, though never seemed to relish living in the public eye. His mother last year described her son as "quiet and introverted." She said: "All he was interested in high school was the computer, television and the basketball court, where he spent most of his time."
The last sign of life received from the conscript soldier, who has since been promoted from corporal to sergeant, was a videotape released in September 2009 by the militants who hold him. Israel freed 20 female Palestinian prisoners in return.
Pale and thin, Shalit pleaded for his life. He has not had any visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"I hope that the current administration, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, won't waste this opportunity to achieve a deal, and as a result I will finally be able to realize my dream and be released," said Shalit, who also holds French citizenship through his French-born paternal grandmother.
"Thank you very much, and goodbye," he said, standing up briefly as the video ended.
In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip murals sprouted, showing an elderly, grey-haired Shalit, still awaiting his freedom.
Shalit was reunited with his family an Israeli air base, where Netanyahu also greeted him. "Welcome, Gilad. Welcome back to Israel," Netanyahu said, according to an official statement.
"It's so good you came home."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)