The Black Hawk helicopter that brought Sergeant First Class ...>Gilad Shalit
to the tiny hilltop community of Mizpe Hila close to the Lebanese border touched down just after 4.30pm, silhouetted against a pink and gold streaked sky. Hundreds of neighbours and supporters lined the streets as a long convoy of vehicles carried him the last few miles to the family home, throwing white roses and carnations in its path and waving Israeli flags and champagne bottles in the air.Gilad Shalit
The relief and joy, evident at the end of a long day which began with Shalit being handed over to Egyptian mediators by militants wearing black face masks and Hamas green headbands, was mirrored in Gaza
and the West Bank by relatives and supporters of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners whose release was the price of the young soldier's freedom.Gaza
The agreement, brokered after years of delicate negotiations by international mediators, was hailed by many Israelis and is expected to boost political support for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But debate about the political and security costs of the deal is likely to grow as the euphoria dies down.
In Mizpe Hila, where Shalit grew up in a close community of fewer than 600 residents, the first pictures of the freed captive were greeted with whoops and cheers. He was alive, he was walking unaided, and he was smiling. But anxiety set in as footage of an interview on Egyptian television was aired on giant screens.
"I cried," said Tzippy Newman, who had travelled from her home in the West Bank settlement of Ginot Shomron. "He looked like a concentration camp victim. Emaciated, weak. He has been through a terrible ordeal, and it was visible." Shalit – rake thin, deathly pale, with sunken eyes, laboured breathing and a dazed expression – spoke of missing his family and friends, and his fears that he would remain in captivity for many more years.
"Of course I missed my family. I missed friends, meeting people to talk to people, and not to sit all day, to do the same things," he told his Egyptian interviewer.
An Israeli official, speaking anonymously but claiming to voice the views of many of his colleagues, said he was shocked the interview had been "forced on" Shalit within minutes of his release.
The 25-year-old was then taken across the border into Israel
for an initial medical examination and telephone conversation with his parents, Noam and Aviva, whose tireless campaign for his release he had been aware of during his captivity. Medics said he was suffering from malnutrition.Israel
His journey home continued via helicopter to the Tel Nof military base in central Israel for an emotional reunion with his family, preceded by a formal welcome by Netanyahu. "Hello, Gilad. Welcome back to Israel. It's so good to have you home," the prime minister said as he hugged the young man.
The country was "united in joy and pain" but the price had been heavy, Netanyahu said at a press conference. "I know very well that the pain of the families of the victims of terrorism is too heavy to bear … but I also knew that in the current diplomatic circumstances, this was the best agreement we could achieve."
In Mizpe Hila – whose name means "aura" in Hebrew – the mood swung between euphoria and anxiety as the wait for the local boy lengthened with the afternoon shadows. Rumours began to circulate that Shalit had fainted during or following his first helicopter journey; it seemed all too possible for a young man whose long incarceration without natural light was swiftly followed by a flight through the open skies.
There was hushed talk that he was too physically and psychologically frail to undertake the final leg of the journey by helicopter and might even have to be hospitalised.
But then word came that doctors had given permission for a second flight, and anticipation began to mount.
"It's a very, very exciting moment," said Ella Hefez, a volunteer with the campaign to secure his release for the past three years. "We did so many things to bring him home, but in the last few months I lost hope. I want to thank the prime minister for this big, big decision. It wasn't easy."
Despite being "from the left", she said she would vote for Netanyahu at the next election as a way of showing her appreciation.
But Varda Goldblat, a social worker from Tel Aviv and active in the campaign for the past four years, said she was cynical about Netanyahu's motives. "He is late by five years," she said, adding that the prime minister had only acted following the popular social justice protests that swept Israel this summer.
"Netanyahu is only concerned about his position, and the young people shook his position in the summer. So he makes a miracle. He has to give something to distract the minds of the people."
The price had been high, "but the price of not setting him free would have been much worse for Israeli society – the loss of belief in the army, the damage to our values … the ethos of never leaving a soldier in the field."
Despite his visible fragility, Shalit would recover from his ordeal with the help and support of the community, many in the village said.
"It's like a bubble here," said Asaf Sabo, 25, who had been to school with Shalit. "We are not exposed to many of the things that you see in the city."
Sabo and another of the soldier's friends, Tomer Yona, 25, said there would be no big welcome-home party. "Not now, not in the first days or weeks. It depends on his psychological state," said Yona.
The pair had also been in the army as part of their compulsory military service at the time of Shalit's abduction.
For at least one of those among the crowds overlooking the rolling hills of the western Galilee, it was an extraordinarily poignant day.
Miki Goldwasser, 65, joined forces with the Shalit family after her son, Ehud, was abducted along with fellow soldier Eldad Regev by Hezbollah militants close to the Lebanon border in July 2006, a month after Shalit was snatched at the other end of the country.
Two years later the remains of Goldwasser and Regev were returned to their families by Hezbollah in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. The pair had been killed during the operation. But, she said, "I put my sadness aside. I want only to share the moment of seeing Gilad alive." The young soldier's release was "a great moment".
She had come to share the Shalit family's joy. Aviva Shalit, she said, "gave birth to Gilad once, but today she's giving birth to him for the second time. This time the labour took five years."
As the convoy carrying the family was whisked through a a heavy police guard leading to his home, Shalit waved briefly to the crowd.
Shortly afterwards, his father Noam stepped outside the house to thank the Israeli public for their support and request privacy. His son, he said, was overwhelmed by the attention after such a long period of isolation but was generally in reasonable health.
Middle East and North Africa
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