Freed Israeli Gilad Schalit thanks supporters

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2011 3:59 PM
Freed Israeli Gilad Schalit thanks supporters

Former Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit thanked his supporters Saturday in his first remarks to the Israeli public since being released as part of a prisoner exchange with the Islamic militant group Hamas in October.

Schalit spoke in a brief recorded video clip that was shown to a gathering of activists and broadcast on Israeli television Saturday. He appeared healthy, his hair a little longer and his face less pale than when he was released.

"When I was in captivity I heard a lot about your efforts to secure my release," Schalit said, adding that he was convinced that they were "one of the deciding factors that contributed to my return home."

Schalit was captured by Palestinian militants on the Gaza border in 2006. After five and a half years of failed negotiations, Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit's release.

Israel released 477 of those prisoners in October, and the remainder are expected to be freed within a week.

Schalit was interviewed by an Egyptian TV journalist immediately upon his release, appearing overwhelmed and out of breath. He had not made other appearances until his video greeting Saturday. An Israeli TV anchor noted that the video was reminiscent of another clip featuring Schalit _ one that was filmed by Schalit's kidnappers in 2009.

Schalit was notably gaunt, pale and exhausted when he was freed. His father, Noam, said his son suffered from malnutrition, the effects of isolation and lack of exposure to sunlight. He also said his son "endured harsh things" in captivity, but did not elaborate.

Upon his return to Israel, Schalit underwent surgery for minor wounds sustained during his capture.

At the gathering for Schalit's supporters, his grandfather, Zvi, told the crowd he was looking forward to lighting Hanukkah candles with his grandson for the first time in five years.

Toward the end of the evening, musicians performed and Schalit's father and brother danced in a tight circle with other activists.