A year on, former Hamas captive Gilad Shalit keeps low profile
Israeli Gilad Shalit, at the centre of a high-profile prisoner exchange deal, is now a sports columnist and prefers to stay out of the spotlight
A year after emerging from Hamas captivity in Gaza, Gilad Shalit has hung up his gun and picked up a pen as the former captive soldier takes up a new life as a sports columnist for an Israeli newspaper.
But in stark contrast with the five years he spent in captivity in Gaza, when the young Israeli soldier's profile was very high, Shalit is now doing his utmost to steer clear of the public eye.
A year after his release on October 18, 2011, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, Shalit made sure he was far from the media glare - on a private trip to the United States.
"He is trying to live his life, to make up for lost time, to go out with his friends and discover the world," his father Noam Shalit said.
Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants during a deadly cross-border raid in 2006 and held incommunicado in Gaza until he was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the ruling Hamas movement.
The controversial swap deal, which saw hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who were serving life for anti-Israeli attacks walk free, was claimed by both sides as a victory.
"The Shalit deal was one of the biggest achievements of the Palestinian resistance," said Taher al-Nunu, a spokesman for Gaza's Hamas government. "It proves [capturing soldiers] is the best way to have prisoners released and put pressure on the Zionist occupation."
For Palestinians, the release of the prisoners sparked huge celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet life quickly returned to normal after most of them returned to their families.
But in Israel, the mystery surrounding the captivity of the bespectacled soldier has lingered.
So far, Shalit, now 26, has not sold his story to anyone and the Israeli media has honoured a rare agreement to leave him and his family in peace.
Unremarkable in appearance, a shy smile hovering over his lips, Shalit would pass largely unnoticed in the street if his image had not been imprinted on Israel's consciousness, thanks to a relentless campaign by his parents who turned him into an icon of the people.
Passionate about basketball since childhood, Shalit says it was sport which helped him cope during the 1,941 days he was held in captivity.
In excerpts of his first-ever interview, broadcast on Israel's Channel 10 television on Wednesday, Shalit said he devised games to keep himself occupied and dispel a gnawing fear that he would never get out alive.
"I would make a ball out of socks or a shirt, and throw it into the rubbish bin," he said, according to excerpts of the transcript published by the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "There was a common denominator between us, sport," he said of his captors. "During the day I would play all kinds of games with them. Chess, dominoes.
"There were moments when a kind of emotion would arise, a kind of laughter, when we watched a good [soccer] game on television or a movie," he said, relating their surprise on seeing an impressive Israeli goal during a Champions League match.
Over the last year, it has been sport which has helped him slowly return to normal.
Despite a hand injury dating back to his capture in 2006, Shalit often plays basketball or attends matches, although his presence always sparks a wave of postings on social networks, not to mention press attention.
And since June, he has been penning a weekly column in Yediot Aharonot, following local and international sport.