RAFAH/CAIRO: Busloads of Palestinian prisoners arrived at the Rafah border crossing on Tuesday as Egyptian television showed the first images of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, released under a swap deal.
Gilad Shalit, who was freed on Tuesday after five years in detention by Palestinian militants, said he hoped the prisoner swap in which he was liberated would lead to peace between both sides.
"I hope this deal helps achieve peace between both sides, Israel and the Palestinians," he told Egyptian television in his first interview since his release.
"I feel like I am in good health," Shalit said in Hebrew through an interpreter.
In Rafah, a divided town on the Egypt-Gaza border, the Palestinian prisoners were shown flashing victory signs and smiling from their buses, before heading into the Gaza Strip.
"We are going home with dignity, thank God," one prisoner told Egyptian television from the bus.
"Thank God for this great achievement. The Palestinian people deserve to live in freedom like everyone else," said another freed prisoner, thanking Egypt for mediating the deal.
"This (exchange deal) is the first step towards the full liberation of the Palestinian people," he said.
An Egyptian security delegation and a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross had arrived at the Rafah crossing early on Tuesday to oversee the exchange.
Dozens of families had been waiting at the border, chanting, cheering and waving Palestinian and Hamas flags.
Ansaf Mohamed Yunis waited at the Rafah border crossing, hoping to see her brother Ibrahim — who served eight years of a 17-year sentence.
The family is from the West Bank but Ibrahim, who was 22 when jailed, was being freed into the Gaza Strip.
"We don’t know how to feel," Yunis told AFP by telephone. "It will be a shock to see him."
"We are happy, for sure. But we are also bitter because we haven’t seen him in eight years," Yunis said.
"We are not sure what’s going to happen now, how long he will stay in Gaza. The future is very uncertain," she said.
The landmark deal between Israel and its bitter Hamas enemy will see Israel freeing a total of 1,027 prisoners in exchange for the release of Shalit.
The long-awaited deal, signed last week, is the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for a single person.
Wearing a checkered shirt and smiling occasionally, Shalit took short breaths as he thanked all those who worked for his release.
"I think the Egyptians succeeded (in achieving the deal) because of their good relations with Hamas and the Israeli side. These good relations helped complete the deal," Shalit told Egyptian state-TV.
He said that after all these years in captivity, he hoped to see the rest of the Palestinian prisoners released.
"I would be very happy if they were all released so that they can go back to their families and their lands. I would be very happy if this happened," he said.
Shalit heard one week ago that he would be released, after years of off-and-on negotiations.
"I can’t describe how I felt, but I felt that I was about to face some very difficult times," he told the interviewer, who asked the interpreter to rush because she felt Shalit "looks tired."
"I missed my family very much. I also missed my friends. I very much missed meeting ordinary people to talk to them about my experience," Shalit said.
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.
Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.
After entering Israel, Shalit will be flown to Tel Nof air base in southern Israel where he will join his family and meet Israeli leaders.
Shalit’s parents Noam and Aviva, his brother Yoel, sister Hadass and his grandfather have already arrived at the air base where they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister’s office said.