by Gur Salomon, Dave Bender, Susana Mendoza
JERUSALEM, Oct. 18 (Xinhua) -- An entire nation held its breath Tuesday as Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier that had been held captive by Islamic group Hamas for more than five years, returned home and reunited with his family.
Hamas first handed Shalit over to Egyptian officials at a border crossing near the Gaza Strip. He was transferred into Israeli custody after it was confirmed that 477 Palestinian prisoners had been released in the first phase of a landmark swap deal signed between Israel and Hamas in Cairo last week.
Under the deal, another 550 inmates will be set free and return to the West Bank, Gaza and some Mideast countries in the coming two months. Some 280 of the prisoners released Tuesday were serving multiple life terms for perpetrating lethal attacks that killed upward of 1,000 Israeli civilians.
Shalit, 25, has spent 1,941 days in Hamas captivity after being captured in a cross-border raid on an Israeli military post near Gaza. Two members of his tank crew were killed while he was dragged into the coastal enclave through a tunnel dug underneath the border fence.
The deal for his release entailed the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for one person. He is also the first member of the Israeli military to return home alive from captivity in 26 years.
Earlier Tuesday, upon disembarking from a helicopter that flew him to the Tel Nof Air Base in central Israel, Shalit paused to salute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who greeted the returning soldier with a warm hug.
After Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz also greeted Shalit.
Looking thin, dazed and pale, Shalit, dressed in a military uniform, was then taken to a room at the base for a first meeting with his parents, who led a massive public campaign that ran years with the aim of pressuring the Israeli government to pay the price for their son's freedom.
In a press conference that followed the soldier's arrival, Netanyahu said that the swap deal confronted him with one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make.
"On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain," Netanyahu said.
The prime minister said that though the decision to release so many Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit was "very hard," he saw the need to "return home someone whom the State of Israel had sent to the battlefield."
He added that in a bid to minimize future dangers to the lives of Israelis, he insisted that senior Hamas-allied prisoners remain incarcerated, and that the majority of those slated for release be exiled abroad or not allowed to return to the West Bank, which is the two basic demands that Hamas had ultimately conceded to during the course of negotiations on the swap deal.
"I would like to make it clear that we will continue to fight terrorism. Any released terrorist who will return to armed activity," Netanyahu warned, using a Biblical reference denoting accountability for one's misdeeds.
Later Tuesday, an ecstatic crowd welcomed Shalit upon his arrival home in the northern community of Mitzpe Hila.
Hundreds of friends, plain folks and activists who campaigned for the soldier's release flocked to the community beginning in the early morning hours, waving flags, singing and eagerly anticipating his long-anticipated arrival.
A military helicopter flew Shalit and his parents to Mitzpe Hila. A police motorcade then escorted the van that ushered the family directly to their home.
While Shalit did not step out to greet the fanfare, the celebrants, many of whom had volunteered to organize protests and marches for his release, rejoiced with tears.
"We can't believe he's back, it's like a dream," Ella Hefetz, who marched for Shalit, told Xinhua.
Noam Shalit, the newly-released soldier's father, said he and his family have experienced "the rebirth of our son."
"Gilad feels well, but is suffering from several light wounds incurred during his captivity from lack of proper treatment, mostly shrapnel wounds and lack of sunlight," Noam told a press conference outside his home.
He said his son is due to begin a lengthy rehabilitation process that will be conducted by military medical teams, expressing hope that he will soon return to a normal routine.
Israel's Supreme Court late Monday rejected several petitions that were filed against the deal by Israelis who lost relatives in militant attacks. Despite the general feeling of elation surrounding the soldier's return, many Israelis are also outraged at the price their government paid.
But a public opinion poll published by local daily Yediot Ahronot on Monday showed that a large majority of 79 percent of Israelis supported the deal.