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After 5 years in captivity, Shalit is back home

From Michal Zippori, Paul Colsey and Kareem Khadder, CNN
updated 10:56 PM EDT, Tue October 18, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Freed Palestinians travel to Turkey, Syria, Qatar, Jordan
  • Noam Shalit says his son suffered from shrapnel wounds, lack of sunlight
  • Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya weeps as he hugs freed Palestinians
  • Mahmoud Abbas says more prisoners will be freed after this deal

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit arrived safe and sound in his northern Israeli hometown, feeling "good" in his first day of freedom after more than five years in Hamas captivity, but suffering small injuries from shrapnel wounds.

In what was an arduous and emotional day for Israelis and Palestinians, Shalit won his release Tuesday morning in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, whose walk to freedom drew cheers from thousands in Gaza and the West Bank.

"We can say that we have experienced the rebirth of a son," his father, Noam Shalit, told reporters.

"Gilad has come home after an exhausting and long struggle. As I have said quite often, we were told that we were tilting at windmills. It was exhausting, but ultimately we managed to bring him home. As you have seen today he came home and walked up the steps that he left, and has come home, went through the door that he left so many days ago, 1,942 days ago."

The first of several hundred released Palestinian prisoners made journeys of their own.

According to Syria's official SANA news agency, 16 arrived Wednesday in Damascus. Fifteen arrived in Doha, reported the official (QNA) Qatar News Agency.

Egypt's state-run al-Ahram newspaper said 46 Palestinians left Cairo and headed to Qatar, Turkey and Syria. Turkey's semi-official Anatolian agency said 10 are coming to that country.

According to Hams' al-Aqsa TV, Ahlam al-Tamimi arrived in Amman, Jordan, from Cairo early Wednesday. She was a university student who served life terms for being an accomplice in a 2001 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem restaurant that killed at least 15 people.

Shalit came via Egypt because it acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, which do not have relations. He was given medical checks that showed him to be in good health and cleared him to return home. He was flown to Tel Nof air base, where he was reunited with his family and saluted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on arrival there.

A helicopter flew him and his family home from the air base to the northern Galilee village of Mitzpe Hila. He made his way by vehicle from the helipad to the village and was whisked into his home.

Greeted along the road by hundreds of chanting and flag-waving supporters, people in the Galilee community laid out white roses and hung banners to welcome Shalit back, erupting in joy at the return of the young man who became an international cause célèbre.

Noam Shalit grabbed him in a bear hug, held him tight and kissed him as they were reunited at the air base. The father told Israeli television earlier it was the happiest day of his life.

"He basically came out of a dark hole, in a dark basement, and came out of that to a great crowd. I'm sure that this was an amazing experience for him when he arrived here at our village to see all of this going on. "

Noam Shalit said his son "feels good" and is "very happy to be home."

"But he is suffering from a number of small injuries that have remained with him because he wasn't treated properly. Shrapnel wounds, and also the results of a lack of sunlight. Now he has had extensive medical tests and he will have appropriate treatment from the Israeli medical forces," he said.

Noam Shalit said his son couldn't communicate with people in his own language in captivity. "The only thing he was able to do is communicate with his abductors and his guards."

"Of course it's difficult for him to just expose himself to so many people because he's been in isolation, really in isolation, for so many days and so many years."

He told reporters that conditions in captivity at the beginning of his son's ordeal were difficult but they eventually improved. He said Gilad was able to listen to the radio and was able to watch some television, particularly the Arab TV stations.

The father thanked all of the people who showed up to welcome his son "so warmly, so supportively with such solidarity and such warmth" and addressed the concerns of the survivors of people whose relatives were slain by some of the Palestinian inmates who were freed.

"We definitely identified with them and totally understand their anguish. And we understand the price that they are paying for Gilad's freedom."

Gilad Shalit: Israeli captive freed at last

Shalit learned about a week ago that he was going to be released, though he "felt it for the last month," he told Egyptian television after his release.

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"I missed my family. I missed going out and meeting people," he said in the emotional interview, where he appeared pale, tired, tense, and sometimes out of breath, although he was seated in a chair.

"I hope this deal will move the peace process forward," he told Shahira Amin of Egyptian TV, saying he would be glad if the remaining Palestinian prisoners are released "as long as they do not go back to fighting Israel."

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The interview came shortly after Egyptian television showed a short clip of Shalit walking unaided with an escort of about a half-dozen people. He looked thin and dazed, wearing a dark baseball cap and collared shirt.

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff said in a statement to Shalit that the "commanders and soldiers of the IDF respect you and are proud of your tenacity and resilience throughout these years. We will continue to support you for as long as you need.

"On behalf of your fellow soldiers, who carry on their shoulders your generation's guardianship of the country, whether in the land, sea or air, in their offices or in the field, throughout the country, whether in their tanks, or artillery batteries, in their planes or in their ships -- in the name of the whole of the IDF, I congratulate you and your family upon your return to us."

Israel freed 477 Palestinian inmates from Israeli jails shortly before Shalit was released, the first batch of Palestinians being swapped for Shalit's freedom.

Enormous crowds of Palestinians estimated in the tens of thousands flooded the streets of Gaza, waving flags and banners, to welcome the inmates home. Greeted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, prisoners went on a stage before a jubilant throng. Most of the crowd waved Hamas banners but some hoisted the flag of Fatah.

In celebration of the freed detainees, Palestinian leaders have declared Wednesday a holiday for all government institutions, including schools, Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television reported.

Haniya wept tears of joy as he hugged and kissed those who crossed into Gaza.

Speaking for Palestinians everywhere, Haniya said, "this is the day of our God. It's our God that's given us this victory. He has made us this miracle and this pride on this proud people. It's God who has preserved our resistance fighters. It's God who set in his book that our our soldiers are the victorious."

Haniya said Shalit was tightly guarded throughout the duration, adding that "for the purpose of liberating these heroes, we put our divisions behind our backs."

"We have entered into a unity for the sake of these heroes from different factions," he said, noting that people in non-Hamas factions, like Fatah and Islamic Jihad, also were freed.

"Some people described what Hamas did as an adventure that does not merit what Gaza went through. But I tell you now these heroes deserve any adventure, risk-taking to bring them back."

Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal, speaking in Cairo, said the "victory is a result of the negotiation that was led by Hamas."

"The ability to hide Gilad Shalit in Gaza for five years is something to be proud of. The Palestinian security mind has defeated the Israeli security mind, which is supported by all the rest of the world," Meshaal said.

Meshaal said more prisoners could have been "liberated" with more time.

"We would have kept on negotiating. But we have realized this is the ceiling we can get to."

After five very difficult years, Ahmed Qawasmi, 80, was awaiting the release of his son Amer, who was arrested when he was 17 and has been in jail 24 years.

"I am very, very happy for the release of my son Amer," he said, adding: "The celebrations and happiness won't be complete until all Palestinian prisoners are free from Israeli prisons."

Nabil Hamouz, 21, told CNN he was waiting for the release of his mother Hanan, 42, who has served one year of a 2 1/2-year sentence for trying to stab an Israeli soldier.

"I am very happy and can't wait to hug my mother again," he said, weeping.

Freed prisoners praised Egypt's role as a mediator in interviews on Palestinian television after they were released.

Some are being sent to the West Bank and others to Gaza, while just under half are being sent abroad. A handful are going to homes in Jerusalem, elsewhere in Israel or to Jordan.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted some of them with hugs at his compound in the West Bank.

Abbas told cheering crowds they had "fought and sacrificed, and you will see the results of your struggle in an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

And he said more prisoners will be released.

"I am not revealing a secret here. I do not reveal a secret. If I say that there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government to release more prisoners, the same number of prisoners released on this deal, once this current deal is over and therefore, we demand from them to honor their pledge if making pledges is a responsible act on their end," Abbas said.

Hamas official Hassan Youssef welcomed the release of some prisoners, but said it was not enough.

"We are all shedding two tears: One tear for the release of all of our fighters, and a tear of pain for all of our brothers still in prison," he said.

Netanyahu used strikingly similar language to describe his nation's emotions at the release of Shalit in exchange for convicted attackers of Israelis.

"Today we are all united in joy and in pain. ... This is also a hard day; even if the price had been smaller, it would still have been heavy," he said.

CNN's Kevin Flower, Guy Azriel, Frederik Pleitgen, Schams Elwazer, Rima Maktabi and Zain Verjee contributed to this report.

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