RAFAH, Egypt/MITZPE HILA, Israel: More than 450 Palestinian prisoners were freed Tuesday, as Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in Hamas captivity for five years, arrived in his hometown in North Israel.
Four-hundred and seventy-seven Palestinians were transferred from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and Gaza, where massive celebratory rallies festooned with green Hamas flags were held. In Gaza City, tens of thousands crammed into an open lot where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Shalit’s capture in a June 2006 raid on an army base near the Gaza border.
The rest of the prisoners — about 550 more — are to be released in a second phase in two months.
Shalit was released in exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in a swap deal brokered by Egypt.
Before he was flown to an Israel air base where he reunited with his parents, Shalit spoke to Egyptian TV in an interview Israeli officials later called "shocking." The gaunt, sallow and uncomfortable looking Shalit appeared to struggle to speak at times, and his breathing was noticeably labored as he awkwardly answered questions.
Still he said he felt good and was "very excited" to be going free.
After a tumultuous day that included a reception with the prime minister and an emotional reunion with his family, Shalit touched down in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel late Tuesday on board a military helicopter.
Among those being released were hundreds of Palestinians who were serving life sentences for their involvement in deadly attacks, in what is the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for the release of one man.
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 well wishers 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 stone throwing.
After they were released, the 117 prisoners were transferred 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.
By contrast, 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.
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. His release sparked emotional scenes across 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.
He also said he hoped 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."
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 video released by the Israeli military showed Shalit being helped into an army jeep after crossing the border into Israel, and walking gingerly down some steps as he exited a military caravan after changing into a fresh army uniform. Military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in "good" condition, though he showed signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to the sun.
Shalit was then flown to an air base in central Israel, where he was hugged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and reunited with his family. Video footage showed Shalit’s father, Noam, hugging and kissing his son, before saying "come see your mother" and leading him away for a family reunion.
Speaking afterward, Netanyahu said he understood the pain of Israeli families who lost relatives in Palestinian violence, but that Israel’s ethos of doing everything possible to bring its soldiers home safely forced him to act.
He also issued a staunch warning to the freed prisoners.
Many of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners included in the deal are serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.
"We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable," Netanyahu said.
Those concerns were underscored with comments by Palestinian prisoners and demonstrators for more soldier kidnappings to bring home the thousands of Palestinians who remain in Israeli prisons.
"The people want a new Gilad," the crowd chanted in Gaza.
Hamas, which has negotiated the deal, turned Tuesday’s celebration in Gaza into a show of strength for the Islamic movement.
Thousands hoisted green Hamas flags, while a far smaller number raised the banners of rival movement Fatah, led by Abbas. The released prisoners were making their way from the border with Egypt, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, to Gaza City in the north, and many thousands were lining the street to cheer on the convoy.
In the West Bank, Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand, including released prisoners and their relatives. In an attempt at unity, he shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in the West Bank and at one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.
Still, Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap, the most significant for the Palestinians in nearly three decades. Over years of negotiating with Israel, Abbas has only been able to bring about the release of those who had little time left on their sentences.
Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of talks through German and Egyptian mediators. But officials on both sides have said that conditions prompted in part by the recent Egyptian revolution helped drive them to an agreement. Both sides have been eager to have good ties with the new Egyptian leadership.
News of the deal was welcomed by the US, Britain, France and Germany, among others. Shalit holds French citizenship, while a German mediator was closely involved in the years of negotiations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking while on a stop in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, said the US was pleased the ordeal was over.
"He was held for far too long in captivity," Clinton said. –Agencies
A handout picture released by the Israeli Prime Minister Office shows Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (C) being hugged by his father Noam (R) as they walk alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Tel Nof airbase near Tel Aviv on Oct.18. (AFP PHOTO/PMO/HO)
Palestinians celebrate the release of hundreds of prisoners following a swap with captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Oct. 18 in Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Bashar Taleb)