25-year old Sergeant Gilad Shalit is about the most popular man in Israel at the moment. After more than five years of imprisonment in Palestine, he was met on his return to Israel by his family and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And by the time he returned to his village, he was met by crowds lining the streets in the village of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel.
Shalit was freed after more than five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip in an exchange which will see 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in total also be released.
Hundreds of those being freed under the deal between Israel and Hamas were serving life sentences for allegedly killing Israelis.
As Sergeant Shalit was being greeted by a national outpouring of emotion in his home country, there were jubilant scenes in Gaza and the West Bank as their nationals returned. As Palestine released the young soldier and he was flown home, Israel simultaneously released 477 Palestinian prisoners.
Though according to a military statement, the Shalit was in good health when he was released, it was obvious that he looked weak.
While speaking on Egyptian television, the freed soldier said he hoped his release would lead to peace between Israel and Palestine.”You can’t imagine how I felt when I heard I was going home, I received this news a week ago and I felt then that this would be my last chance to be free. They were long years. But I always thought the day would come when I finally get out of captivity. Of course I miss my family very much. I also miss my friends. I hope this deal will lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support cooperation between both sides” he said.
Shalit was only 19 when he was captured by three Gaza-based militant groups in a deadly cross-border raid on June 25, 2006.
Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a huge military operation against Gaza to try to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead. The operation was however unsuccessful and in June 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza. The deal that brought about his release was brokered by Egypt.