Shalit release: 'He looks thin. But it's good he can walk'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The soldier's freedom came at a high price for Israel, but Donald Macintyre witnesses the joy his release brought to his home town

It was not long after 10am yesterday, seconds after the small crowd watching the big open-air TV screen at the end of the Shalits' street began to stir and clap, that Dor Peled, 25, knew for certain that his good friend since the age of seven was coming home at last.

Breaking off a conversation, he strode towards the screen in time to watch, transfixed, as Israeli TV showed a continuous loop of the very first video pictures of Gilad Shalit on Egyptian soil, still dressed in the baseball cap and grey open-necked shirt he was wearing when he left Gaza. Silent for several minutes, he said at last: "It gives me goose bumps. It's amazing. He looks thin but it's so good to see him walking."

It would be another six-and-a-half hours before the two Israeli air force helicopters – one carrying his friend and his parents Noam and Aviva – hummed into view, low against a darkening sky above Mitzpe Hila, a hilltop western Galilee village. And another 30 minutes before the long convoy with its police motorcycle escort moved up the road lined with the village's increasingly excited residents, some waving bouquets of white roses and chanting "Gilad has come home in peace".

Through the darkened windows of the first of three SUVs you could just glimpse the pale young Sergeant First Class, the rank to which he was promoted in his absence, sitting between his parents, before the convoy turned left through the cheering crowd and up to the home he had left for the last time as a 19-year-old conscript corporal more than five years ago.

The momentous day for Israel and its Occupied Territories has, in the short term, significantly strengthened both the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas, the hitherto shunned Islamic Palestinian faction that had long held Sgt Shalit.

Mr Peled regarded the return – and the exchange with more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners which made it possible – as a vindication. "I was always sure that he would be OK and that he would come back," he said.

Just how "OK" Shalit is after his confinement in Gaza since he was seized by militants on the Israeli side of the territory's border in June 2006 remains to be established. Shortly after he was released, Sgt Shalit appeared on Egyptian television in an interview that an Israeli official told AP had "shocked" his government, even as it was greeted warmly by residents of his village.

"I had thoughts about this hope [of being freed]," he said, speaking in Hebrew. "I felt it could take time, but I felt it could also happen. I had had a feeling all month long." Describing his condition as good, he explained that, while he had lived in isolation, he had had enough contact with the outside world to know that his family was working for his release. And he told the Egyptian interviewer that he was glad Palestinian captives were also being freed.

Looking back on his captivity, he described his longing to see his loved ones. "Of course I miss my family very much," he said. "I also miss my friends and meeting regular people, talking to them, telling them about my experience [of] all those years in captivity."

Military officials said after medical examinations at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel that he was in "good" condition while showing some signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to sunlight.

Noam Shalit later briefly left his house to tell reporters here that his son was healthy overall but would need time to recover. He had suffered shrapnel wounds during his abduction, in which two members of his tank crew were killed. He had said that treatment by his captors, bad to begin with, had subsequently improved. "Naturally he can't be exposed to so many people because he was in isolation so many years and couldn't interact with people in his language, and all he could do was communicate with his abductors and guards," Noam Shalit added. "The first thing we did when Gilad came home was to have a family meal."

Repeated showing of the videos of Sgt Shalit on a makeshift screen in the local community hall had earlier been greeted with repeated applause. Mr Netanyahu was heard out respectfully but more impassively as he spoke. Footage showed him greeting the freed soldier at the Tel Nof base, and he told Mr and Mrs Shalit that he had "brought your son home".

Mr Netanyahu's right-wing supporters were sceptical over the release of militants with "blood on their hands". The Defence Minister Ehud Barak, while welcoming Shalit's return, added that Israel needed to "rethink" how it dealt with the issue of captured soldiers.

But in Mitzpe Hila, there were no such caveats. "There was no way we could not support it, no matter what the price is," said Karen Asscher, 50, the mother of five-year-old twins.

"I understand the feelings of those families who had members murdered by the prisoners released, but as Noam said: 'My son is alive and I am not going to give up on him'."

From capture to freedom: Shalit's five-year wait

25 June 2006 Hamas militants mount a raid across the Gaza-Israel border and abduct 19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel invades Gaza two days later.

26 November 2006 Five months of Israeli air strikes leave hundreds dead but fail to secure Shalit's release. Israel calls a temporary ceasefire.

14 June 2007 Hamas seizes control of Gaza from Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

8 September 2007 Israeli forces abduct a prominent member of Hamas to use him as a bargaining tool.

26 December 2007 Hamas says it will not free Shalit unless Israel releases 1,400 Palestinian prisoners.

17 June 2008 After a year of faltering peace talks peppered with violence, Egypt brokers a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

19 December 2008 Tensions escalate as Israel and Hamas fail to negotiate an extension of the truce.

27 December 2008 Without warning, Israel launches Operation Cast Lead in response to rocket fire from Gaza. The 22-day military assault kills around 1,400 Palestinians (including 300 children) and 13 Israelis. A ceasefire is called on 18 January.

24 September 2011 In a monumental move strongly opposed by Israel and the US, President Abbas asks the UN formally to recognise an independent Palestinian state. The request is under review.

11 October 2011 Israeli and Hamas officials announce that they have agreed terms for Shalit's release from custody.

18 October 2011 Shalit is reunited with his family in Israel in exchange for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Shalit says he hopes the deal "will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians".

In quotes: Global reaction to a day of drama

"I hugged him [Shalit] as he came down the helicopter, escorted him to his parents... and told them, 'I brought your son back home'. But this is still a difficult day, because even though the price was lowered, it was heavy."

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister

"My happiness is indescribable... We'll get him a bride and everything. I just spoke to him. He's so happy. This is a reminder, God doesn't forget anyone."

Azhar Abu Jawad speaking about her brother, a prisoner freed yesterday

"We shall spare no efforts to liberate the rest of our brothers and sisters ... We urge the Al Qassam Brigades [the Hamas military wing] to kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars."

Yehiye Sinwar, a Hamas leader released yesterday

"I say Aviva Shalit gave birth twice, the second time today, but she was in labour for five years."

Miki Goldwasser, whose son was abducted by Hezbollah in 2006. His body was returned to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange two years later

"I am very encouraged by the exchange today... The United Nations has been calling for [an end to] the unacceptable detention of Gilad Shalit and also the release of all Palestinians whose human rights have been abused all the time."

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

"Your families in Palestinian territories and around the world are looking at you now and are happy that you are being released... You will see the results of your struggle by the inception of a free and independent Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem."

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President

"What has happened offers a change of atmosphere. We've got to use that to push on and try to revive the credible negotiation for a two-state solution."

Tony Blair, Middle East Envoy

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

£12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

£15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Sewing Technician

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in Medical Devices is...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence