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18 Oct, 2011 06:02

Gilad Shalit handed over to Israel

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, taken prisoner by Hamas in 2006, has finally arrived in his hometown in northern Israel. His release is part of a deal, which saw Shalit swapped for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

In Mitzpe Hila, Gilad Shalit was welcomed by a joyous rally. Thousands of Israelis began to arrive well before the helicopter, carrying the Israeli soldier and his family, touched down in northern Israel. People lined the street leading to Shalit’s house, clutching flowers, waving Israeli flags and clapping, reports Agence France Presse."Gilad has returned home safely," they chanted.Gilad's father, Noam Shalit, addressing the crowd outside their family home, thanked the Israeli government and the IDF for the release of his son and the public for their support and welcome. “When I met Gilad I didn't say much, I just gave him a big hug, and I said if I remember correctly 'Welcome', but mostly a strong hug,” added Noam Shalit as quoted by The Telegraph newspaper. Gilad's father also revealed that his son was still suffering from a few shrapnel wounds and complications due to a lack of sunlight.Upon Sgt. Shalit’s release, Israel's army spokesman Yoav Mordechai told Tuesday news conference that Shalit was accompanied by senior military officials to a base, where he underwent a medical examination and had a chance to talk to his family on the telephone – for the first time in five years.According to Palestinian officials, an SUV brought Shalit, accompanied by Hamas representatives, across the border and quickly returned to Gaza early Tuesday. In Egypt, he was attended by local doctors, and later taken to the Kerem Shalom military post in Israel, near the border between Gaza and Egypt.Arriving later at the Tel Nof Air Force base in Israel, Shalit was welcomed by his family and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After this meeting and another medical examination, a helicopter took Gilad Shalit and his family to their home in Mitzpe Hila, a town in Northern Israel. While in Egypt, Gilad gave an interview to Egyptian TV, which showed one of the moments in the complicated process of Shalit’s transfers. According to RT correspondent Paula Slier, Shalit seemed to have trouble talking. He managed to give only short answers to the news presenter. Shalit told the broadcaster he feared to remain in captivity for “many more years,” but about a week ago he was told that he was going to be released. "I hope this deal will help the conclusion of peace between Israel and Palestine," added Shalit.Meanwhile, convoys of Israeli prison vehicles ferried Palestinian inmatesfrom prisons in Israel to one in the West Bank and into Egypt en route to Gaza, where they have been freed to the jubiliant welcome of their families and Hamas leadership.

The swap deal between Israel and Hamas was preceded by a series of complicated negotiations through mediators, because the two sides would not talk directly. The exchange process involves a series of delicate stages, each one triggering the next.The agreement provisioned the exchange taking place in two stages. Firstly, Shalit is transferred to Egypt and then on to Israel, and in return Israel frees 450 prisoners. Secondly, once the Israeli sergeant is safely back home, 577 more Palestinian prisoners are to be released over a period of two months.Over 70 percent of Israelis seem to support the Shalit deal – more than a thousand prisoners for one soldier. But not all Israeli families are celebrating, as many are still waiting for their loved ones to return home after being captured by Palestinian militants. Moreover, there was outrage over the fact that the swap list includes Palestinian prisoners involved in deadly suicide attacks.

Long path to freedom

At the time of his capture Shalit was just 19 years old, halfway through his mandatory army service. He and two other soldiers were guarding an army post in southern Israel when they came under attack by Palestinian militants. His fellow soldiers died at the scene, but the young sergeant was taken prisoner – and immediately became a cause célèbre in Israel.A military operation launched almost immediately failed to secure Shalit’s release. The last proof of life was delivered in the form of a video of the sergeant in 2009, holding a fresh daily newspaper and talking about missing his family. He was refused visits from the Red Cross and sent only three letters to his family – in spite of the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the conditions for imprisonment of a captured soldier, and which give soldiers like Shalit the right to medical aid and family visits. Hamas representatives said Shalit was well cared for, but refused to let anyone see him for fear of his location being disclosed. His family, angered by the inability of diplomatic negotiations to secure his release, organized a pilgrimage march to the office of the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem, where tent camps were set up. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the act by resuming negotiations with Hamas officials, and last week finally agreed to the high-profile exchange. Egyptian and German officials acted as mediators in the talks, and the deal is said to be one of the largest prisoner exchange agreements Israel has ever made.