NEW: Shimon Peres: "Our eyes are wet and our hearts are proud"
Palestinians abducted Israeli soldier Shalit in 2006 when he was 19
Shalit's parents camped out in front of the Israeli prime minister's office for more than a year
Israel inked a deal to get him back in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners
Gilad Shalit was a 19-year-old enlisted man guarding an Israeli army post when Palestinian militants attacked his tank, killed the two men he was serving with and took him prisoner more than five years ago.
Israelis are overjoyed that he went free on Tuesday in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
“We have experienced the rebirth of a son,” Shalit’s father said. It has been “an exhausting and long struggle.”
“Our eyes are wet and our hearts are proud,” Israeli President Shimon Peres declared. “We have become ourselves again.”
“He really is the child of us all,” said Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, noting that almost all Israelis do military service.
Shalit told Egypt’s state-owned Nile TV after his release Tuesday that it was “exciting” to meet many of the people who “have worked very hard in order to release me. I would like to thank them for all this effort.”
He said he received the news of a possible deal to free him a week ago, “but I felt it for the last month. … I was afraid that the negotiations could go wrong.”
Much of Israel came to a halt in a nationwide demonstration earlier this year in response to a Facebook campaign that went viral.
On March 15, cars pulled to the side of the road, schools halted classes and Israeli President Shimon Peres paused at a conference in the southern Israeli city of Eilat.
Israelis were not the only ones marking the soldier’s captivity.
“Jews across the world have been pining for Gilad Shalit’s release for over five years,” said William Daroff, a vice president of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“Thousands of us have had an empty chair at our Passover seder tables reserved for Gilad,” he said, referring to the celebratory meal that marks the beginning of Passover. “We have prayed for his release. We have met with his parents, we have sat with his family in their tent outside the prime minister’s residence, we have marched for Gilad’s release.”
Shalit’s parents led a 12-day march from their home in northern Israel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem in June 2010 and camped out in a tent there until last week.
Soon after the protest camp was set up, the British government demanded Shalit’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
“His detention is unjustifiable and unacceptable,” the British Foreign Office said on Shalit’s 24th birthday.
In June of this year, the United States condemned Shalit’s captivity “in the strongest possible terms,” according to a White House statement. America “joins other governments and organizations around the world” in calling for his immediate freedom, the statement said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday his thoughts were with the victims’ families of the Palestinian prisoners released under the terms of the deal.
“Gilad could not pay for everybody,” Sarkozy said.
Asked what he missed most during his captivity, Shalit told Nile TV Tuesday he missed his family. “I missed going out and meeting people,” he said.’
Shalit traveled via Egypt because it acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. Asked why he thought the Egyptians succeeded and others did not, he said, “I think the Egyptians were successful because they have good relations with Hamas and with Israel.”
On whether he will help bring about the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Shalit said, “I will be glad if they are released, as long as they do not return to fighting Israel.”
And he said he hopes the deal that brought about his release “will move the peace process forward.”
Shalit was born August 28, 1986, in the Israeli coastal city of Naharia and moved with his family to western Galilee two years later.
He has two brothers and was an outstanding science student in high school, his family says.
An Israeli military operation immediately after his capture failed to free him, and he was held incommunicado throughout his captivity.
His family calls it a violation of international law that organizations such as the Red Cross were not allowed to see him and that they were only able to get one letter to him.
The last proof he was alive came in a video in 2009 in which the noticeably thin young man held a newspaper dated September 14.
In the video, he talks about his family, saying: “I miss them very much, and I am longing for the day when I will see them again.”
The day after his capture, a trio of Palestinian groups, including members of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad, said they would release him in exchange for all female Palestinian prisoners and all security prisoners under the age of 18 held by Israel, the Shalit family said.
In the end, Israel is releasing significantly more than the Palestinians originally demanded – despite the objections of at least some Israeli families who do not want to see the killers of their relatives released.
The Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the agreement to release more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, according to a poll published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth the day before his handover by Hamas to Egyptian security.
Israel’s ambassador to London summed up the mixed feelings many experienced in his country as they waited for their most famous captive to taste freedom.
“Seeing Gilad coming home … is really coming home to every family. But at the same time it’s very bittersweet,” Taub said, since “every one of us in some way has been touched by terrorism.”
CNN’s Guy Azriel and Michal Zippori contributed to this report.