JERUSALEM – Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has arrived back in Israel following his release from five years’ captivity, as part of a prisoner exchange deal, the BBC reported. Sgt Shalit was taken from Gaza to Egypt, and then to an airbase in Israel where he was reunited with his family. Meanwhile the first of 477 Palestinians to be released have arrived in Gaza and the West Bank, amid jubilant scenes. Another 550 jailed Palestinian are to be freed next month under the deal between Israel and Hamas.
Sgt Shalit, 25, was seized in 2006 by Hamas militants who tunnelled into Israel. Early on Tuesday he was taken to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and handed over to Egyptian mediators by Hamas, in the presence of Israeli representatives. In his first interview, Sgt Shalit told Egyptian TV he missed his friends and family. Looking drawn and pale, he said he hoped the exchange would help bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Sgt Shalit was then transferred to the Kerem Shalom crossing between Egypt and Israel. He made a phone call to his parents and was later flown to Tel Nof airbase, where the family was reunited. Initial medical examinations found Sgt Shalit to be in a stable condition.
At Tel Nof he was met by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the release was an “exciting moment” but also “very difficult” as the price – the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners – had been “heavy, very high”. Netanyahu added: “I want to make it clear: we will continue fighting terrorism.” Shalit is to have further medical checks. If he is declared fit, he will be flown with his family to northern Israel and escorted to his hometown of Mitzpe Hila.
Meanwhile, freed prisoners praised Egypt’s role as a mediator in interviews on Palestinian television after they were released, according to CNN. Some are being sent to the West Bank and others to Gaza, while just under half are being sent abroad. A handful are going to homes in Jerusalem, elsewhere in Israel or to Jordan.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted some of them with hugs at his compound in the West Bank, while Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya wept tears of joy as he hugged and kissed those who crossed into Gaza. Abbas told cheering crowds they had “fought and sacrificed, and you will see the results of your struggle in an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
A number of senior Palestinian prisoners have been left out of the deal – which was brokered by Egypt. Many of the Palestinians being released were serving life for killing Israelis with bombs and bullets, the BBC said.
According to CNN, the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the swap for Shalit. About eight out of 10 Israelis favor the deal, according to the poll of 500 people conducted by the Dahaf Polling Institute for the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper.