Shalit - AP - October 12, 2011
Noam Shalit, right, Yoel Shalit and Yaara Winkler, father and brother of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walk with family and friends to their home in Mitzpe Hila, October 12, 2011. Photo by AP
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Fifteen months after they left their home in Mitzpeh Hila in the Western Galilee to set up residence in a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, Noam and Aviva Shalit, the parents of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, returned home Wednesday.

When the couple approached the gate of their Galilee community, exhausted after two days without sleep and following a host of meetings with public figures, dozens of well-wishers were waiting for them, including volunteers who had been involved in the campaign on behalf of their son, neighbors and friends of the soldier, who is due to be released after five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

"It's very exciting," said Shalit's brother, Yoel. "I came home periodically over the past year, but this time there is a real feeling of a homecoming. ... Now it's tense because Gilad is not here with us."

"Now we're waiting for Gilad to come home already, and to see him come down the steps to our yard," Noam Shalit said. "We've come a long way and the time has really come for Gilad to be here with us."

Shira Habusha, 25, a childhood friend of Gilad Shalit's, said the saga would not end until the soldier was home. "We grew up in the community like a family and when Gilad was captured, it felt like part of me was missing and now it is about to come back. The missing piece of the puzzle has been put in place, but I am still holding my breath and the tension is huge and even getting bigger," she said.

She noted that she is now in her third year of university studies, and speculated that if Shalit had not been taken captive, he would be a student at the Technion now.

Sources close to the Shalit family noted that the family home had undergone renovations in the five years since his abduction, after the house flooded while the family was in Jerusalem.

"The family really hasn't been here for a year and three months and needs to bring all their things back home. They're also starting to talk about new things they need to buy for Gilad, like sheets for his bed," a family friend explained.

"I want to give him a big hug," said Dor Peled, 25, a close friend of the captive soldier. "It's less important to me now to deal with the question of whether they could have wrapped this up earlier."

Ben Drori, another good friend commented, said he constantly felt Gilad Shalit's absence.

"Several times a day, I thought about what he was going through, how he was feeling," he said. "It accompanied me all the time. I am already dreaming about the evening we will spend barbecuing together and watching Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team we root for."