Gilad Shalit walks towards his home at Mitzpe Hila
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walks towards his home at Mitzpe Hila following a landmark deal with Hamas which freed Gilad after five years of captivity. Shalit finally returned home after emerging frail but elated from 1,941 days of captivity in a deal that saw 477 Palestinians walk free. © - AFP/IDF
Gilad Shalit walks towards his home at Mitzpe Hila
Menahem Kahana, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

Joy as Shalit arrives in Israel, Palestinians freed

Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and 477 Palestinians on Wednesday tasted their first full days of freedom, with both sides mulling their gains -- and losses -- after the landmark prisoner swap.

Tuesday marked the successful completion of the first stage of a complex prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas which saw Shalit return home from more than five years in captivity after he was snatched by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.

"Today we experienced the rebirth of a son," Noam Shalit, father of the freed soldier said after finally reaching home with his son in tow. "Today we are ending a long and tiring journey that began in June 2006."

The scenes of tearful jubilation in Israel were played out hundreds of times over in the Palestinian territories, as families were reunited with their loved ones.

Israel is to free more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Shalit's freedom, and on Tuesday, more than half of the 477 Palestinians released were serving life sentences for their involvement in deadly attacks.

Handing over 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit is the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for the release of one man.

In Israel, the front pages of the main newspapers were plastered with pictures of the now 25-year-old soldier in military fatigues under headlines reading "Hero" and "Gilad, we salute you."

"Yesterday was one of those rare days in which happiness, the exact same happiness, reigned in both Gaza and the Galilee," wrote Haaretz's Gideon Levy.

"In a reality in which one side's joy is inevitably the other side's pain, and one side's victory is the other side's defeat, this moment won't be easily forgotten."

In southern Gaza, hundreds of excited family members met their loved ones at the border then drove in triumphal convoy up to Gaza City where they held a mass celebration with more than 200,000 people that was organised by the ruling Hamas movement.

"Some described Shalit's captivity as a worthless adventure but today they are proven wrong," Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh told the cheering masses.

And Yehia Sinwar, a senior member of Hamas's armed wing who was among those released, urged "all the leaders of the Palestinian resistance, especially the Al-Qassam Brigades, to set a target for the release of the remaining prisoners in the near future."

Smaller but no less significant celebrations were held in the West Bank, where thousands hailed the prisoners' return, and president Mahmud Abbas addressed the crowd, flanked by Hamas officials in a very rare show of apparent unity between the two rival movements.

But many Israeli commentators were quick to pick up on the unusual sight of green Hamas flags flying in the West Bank, and to note the huge boost the deal has given to the Islamist movement -- and the trouble it was likely to spell for the Jewish state.

"The day after is a day for deep and rational soul-searching. And there is no time. The kidnapping of the next Israeli is not a question of if, it is a question of when," wrote Yediot Aharonot's military commentator, Alex Fishman.

"The motivation will only rise now, and not necessarily only among the established terror organisations," he said.

While many governments expressed the hope that the rare agreement between Israel and Hamas would pave the way for a resumption of peace talks, Haaretz said it would have the opposite effect.

In an editorial entitled "Licence to kidnap," Haaretz's Arab affairs commentator Avi Issacharoff said the deal sent a simple message to the Palestinians -- that Israel only understands the language of force.

"The message the Palestinian people have absorbed from the deal is a problem, to say the least," he wrote.

"For Palestinians, whether from the West Bank or Gaza, Hamas' way is the one that succeeded and defeated Israel, while the Palestinian Authority, as usual, has been unable to produce results," he said.

"Almost tragically, Israel has nearly succeeded in strengthening the war camp and weakening the Palestinian peace camp."

Shalit's return to Israel marks the first time in 26 years that a captured soldier has been brought back alive to the Jewish state.

Under the swap deal, 296 prisoners were released to Gaza, of whom 163 of them were exiled there from homes in the West Bank or annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Another 117 went home to the West Bank, 15 returned to their families in east Jerusalem and seven Arab Israelis were also sent home. Another 40 plus prisoners were headed elsewhere in the Arab world or to Turkey.

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