Jubilation in Israel, Palestine after prisoner swap
Gilad Shalit, looking pale but cheerful, was reunited with his family on Tuesday after 1,941 days of Hamas captivity in a landmark swap deal that saw 477 Palestinian prisoners walk free.
"Gilad has returned home," the Israeli army's chief spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai told reporters after the soldier crossed into Israel after first being handed to Egyptian officials by Hamas. He described Shalit's state of health as "good and satisfactory."
Shortly afterwards, 477 Palestinian prisoners were freed to scenes of joy and celebration, with thousands of family members welcoming them with tears and embraces.
Under terms of the deal, Israel will release a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of whom were serving life sentences for their involvement in deadly attacks, in what was the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for the release of one man.
Shalit's homecoming was kept far from the media eye, with the first glimpse of him being several seconds of footage from Egyptian state TV, which showed him wearing black baseball cap and a loose grey shirt.
The young Israeli has been held by militants in Gaza for more than five years, and his release sparked emotional scenes across the Jewish state.
Several hours after his arrival in Israel, Shalit was reunited with his family at Tel Nof airbase near Tel Aviv after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials.
"Hello Gilad, welcome back to Israel. It's so good to have you back home," Netanyahu said, embracing the soldier who was wearing a fresh pair of military fatigues.
In Mitzpe Hila, Shalit's home village in northern Israel, many broke down in tears as the first images of him flashed across the giant screen set up in a local club.
"I have waited five years for this moment," said Shimson Liebman, one of the villagers who ran the campaign to bring the captive soldier home but who has never met him.
"We sent a soldier on a mission and now we've brought him back," he said, wiping tears from his face.
On the path leading to his house, wellwishers had laid 4,000 white flowers, and throughout the village, huge banners read: "How good you've come home!"
Shalit's return to Israel marks the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier has been brought back alive to the Jewish state.
Within minutes of the Israeli announcement, Egyptian state TV began broadcasting a pre-recorded interview with Shalit, who could be seen smiling as he answered the questions.
"Of course I missed my family, I missed going out and meeting people, speaking with people," he said in Hebrew, which was dubbed into Arabic.
He also said he hoped all the remaining Palestinian prisoners would be released. "I would be very happy if they were all released, they just shouldn't return to fighting Israel."
Soon after arriving at the Kerem Shalom crossing from Egypt, Shalit was flown to Tel Nof and after which he was to return to Mitzpe Hila with his family.
Meanwhile in the southern Gaza town of Rafah thousands of excited family members celebrated as the 296 newly-released prisoners crossed the border.
Men wept as they embraced their sons and brothers, while women ululated excitedly before the prisoner were driven to Gaza City where they were met by over 200,000 wellwishers for a mass celebration.
In the West Bank, hundreds gathered by Ofer prison to greet their relatives, only to learn that Israel had decided to drop the detainees off elsewhere sparking angry stonethrowing.
After they were released, the 117 prisoners were shipped directly to Ramallah where many thousands greeted them, cheering and waving flags.
"Your sacrifices and your efforts and your work has not been in vain," Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told the chanting crowd.
The Palestinians are welcoming their returning prisoners as heroes, but in Israel their release caused much soul-searching as hundreds of them were serving life sentences for carrying out deadly attacks.
Under the deal, 296 prisoners were released to Gaza, of which 163 of them were exiled there from homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Another 117 went home to the West Bank, 15 returned to their families in east Jerusalem and seven Arab Israelis were also sent home. Another 40 prisoners are being exiled to Turkey, Syria and Qatar.
A second group of 550 prisoners is to be released in the coming two months although the names have yet to be decided.
Shalit was a 19-year-old corporal on duty along the Gaza border when he was captured on June 25 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups, including Hamas.