Noam Shalit, father of captive Israeli soldier, dies at 68

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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Noam Shalit, the father of a captive Israeli soldier who battled for five years to free his son from his Hamas captors, has died. He was 68.

A spokesman for Rambam hospital in northern Israel said Shalit died late Wednesday of cancer.

The reclusive Shalit, the father of three from a quiet village in northern Israel, was catapulted into the national spotlight after his son, Gilad was captured, emerging as the public face of the campaign to free him. He rallied the nation around his crusade, morphing his son’s plight into a national obsession that eventually saw then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ok a lopsided prisoner exchange for Gilad’s release.

Palestinian militants abducted the wounded Gilad, then 19, from his tank in June 2006 in a brazen cross-border infiltration from Gaza. He was held captive for five years in a Gaza basement, kept in isolation, barred from having visitors and seen only once, in a scripted video released by his captors to prove he was alive. He was released in 2011 after Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 prisoners.

After Gilad’s capture, his parents, Noam and Aviva, became public figures. Noam Shalit frequently met Israeli leaders. He was a fixture on Israeli TV. And even made his case to the United Nations.

With the help of a sophisticated PR campaign that enlisted celebrities, musicians and an army of thousands of volunteers, Shalit succeeded to convince many Israelis that Gilad — a military conscript like every other Jewish Israeli — could have been their son, brother or friend.

Images of Shalit hung on billboards, flags and bumper stickers around the country and even, for a time, in New York’s Times Square. His family erected a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, which became a pilgrimage site for activists and onlookers from around the country. In the summer of 2010, Noam Shalit led days of nationwide marches calling on the government to press for his release.

After his son’s release, Noam and Aviva returned to their quiet life, became grandparents and watched Gilad get married. But Noam said his life was deeply impacted by the taxing period during his son’s captivity.

“Five and a half years of stress did not help my health,” he recently told Israeli Channel 12. “There is no medical proof to that but it seems there is some connection.”

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