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

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

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The Independent Online

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