After 1,941 days in Hamas captivity, Gilad Shalit returned to Israel yesterday.
Shalit, who was kidnapped during a cross-border raid in June 2006 in which two other IDF soldiers were killed, was freed as part of a long-awaited exchange deal in which Israel agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.
Shalit - the first soldier in the Israel Defense Forces returned home alive in 26 years - was whisked across Gaza's border into Egypt early in the morning by armed Hamas militants in an SUV, setting the swap in motion. Wearing a black baseball cap and gray shirt, he was turned over to Egyptian mediators by top Hamas militants.
Before being handed over to Israeli officials, he was subjected to an interview by Egyptian state television, which Jerusalem described as "inappropriate" and a violation of the terms of the agreement.
From there, Shalit was taken to the Kerem Shalom border post, where he underwent preliminary medical examinations. Once it was established that he was in reasonable condition, he was dressed in a fresh army uniform and taken by helicopter to the Tel Nof air force base, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz were waiting for him.
Netanyahu escorted him inside to be reunited with his family, who had been waiting at the base since early yesterday morning. "I've brought your son home," the prime minister told Gilad's parents, Noam and Aviva.
While Gilad was inside with his family, Netanyahu, Barak and Gantz held a press conference.
"Mutual responsibility isn't just a slogan; it's one of the cornerstones of our existence here," Netanyahu said. The decision to conclude the deal was hard, he said, but he deemed it essential to bring back "someone who was sent to the battlefield by the State of Israel."
Shalit arrived in Mitzpeh Hila shortly after 5 P.M., some 10 hours after leaving his cell in Gaza; he was greeted by the cheers of the waiting crowd. Hundreds of people - long-time activists for his release and ordinary citizens alike - shouted "the people of Israel live" and "We love you, Gilad." Many broke into spontaneous song and dance.
The well-wishers who had descended on the once anonymous moshav were kept at bay by hundreds of police officers who had been deployed in the area.
Only residents and journalists were allowed to enter the moshav.
A police roadblock about a kilometer outside the community stopped cars and people made their way to the gated entrance on foot.
Exile to Gaza, Turkey and Syria
Of the 1,027 Palestinians slated for release as part of the deal, 477 were freed yesterday. Some 300 of the prisoners - including several from the West Bank who are being exiled to Gaza as part of the agreement - were brought to the Kerem Shalom crossing before being bused into the Strip.
They were greeted in Gaza City by a mass rally of tens of thousands of people, attended by Hamas' senior leadership.
Another 96 were transported to the West Bank, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them at a rally in Ramallah. In addition, 16 were returned to their homes in East Jerusalem and Umm al-Fahm, while a handful were exiled to Turkey and Syria.
Another 550 are to be freed in two months.
Shalit's release was welcomed by the international community.
The White House said President Barack Obama was pleased Shalit had been freed and wants Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward resuming peace negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on a visit to Libya that the Israeli soldier had been held for "far too long."
The State Department, however, said it had concerns about some of the names on the list of prisoners to be let go.
European leaders also hailed Shalit's release. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described his country's "huge relief" at the sergeant's release, while British Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the "courage and fortitude" shown by Shalit and his family. He also voiced hope that this might lead to better days in the Middle East.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel singled out Egypt for praise, calling its role in the prisoner swap "decisive."