Middle East

Gilad Shalit hopes swap deal 'leads to peace'

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was freed after five years in detention by Palestinian militants, said he hoped the prisoner swap in which he was liberated would lead to peace between both sides.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was freed on Tuesday after five years in detention by Palestinian militants, said he hoped the prisoner swap in which he was liberated would lead to peace between both sides.

"I hope this deal helps achieve peace between both sides, Israel and the Palestinians," he told Egyptian television in his first interview since his release.

"I feel like I am in good health," Shalit said in Hebrew through an interpreter.

Wearing a checkered shirt and smiling occasionally, Shalit took short breaths as he thanked all those who worked for his release.

Under terms of the long-awaited deal signed last week between Israel and its sworn enemy Hamas, and mediated by Egypt, the Jewish state will free a total of 1,027 prisoners to secure the release of the now 25-year-old soldier.

"I think the Egyptians succeeded (in achieving the deal) because of their good relations with Hamas and the Israeli side. These good relations helped complete the deal," Shalit said.

He said that after all these years in captivity, he hoped to see the rest of the Palestinian prisoners released.

"I would be very happy if they were all released so that they can go back to their families and their lands. I would be very happy if this happened," he said.

Shalit heard one week ago that he would be released, after years of off-and-on negotiations.

"I can't describe how I felt, but I felt that I was about to face some very difficult times," he told the interviewer, who asked the interpreter to rush because she felt Shalit "looks tired."

"I missed my family very much. I also missed my friends. I very much missed meeting ordinary people to talk to them about my experience," Shalit said.

The soldier has been held by militants in Gaza for more than five years and the deal marks the highest price ever paid for the release of one person.

Shalit was a 19-year-old corporal on duty along the Gaza border when he was captured on June 25, 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups, including Hamas.

Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.

After entering Israel, Shalit will be flown to Tel Nof air base in southern Israel where he will join his family and meet Israeli leaders.

Shalit's parents Noam and Aviva, his brother Yoel, sister Hadass and his grandfather have already arrived at the air base where they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister's office said.


The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps a five and a half year saga that has seen multiple Israeli military offensives in Gaza, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of failed negotiations.

The Palestinian prisoners, who included dozens of people who had been serving life sentences for deadly attacks, were returning to heroes' welcomes, while dozens of people prepared a joyous homecoming in Schalit's tiny hometown in northern Israel.

"Until we see him, we are following with concern and anticipation," Schalit's father, Noam, told Israel Radio from an air base inside Israel where his family was waiting to reunite with him.

The swap got under way early on Tuesday as Hamas moved Shalit across Gaza's border with Egypt, while Israel simultaneously began freeing the Palestinian prisoners. At mid-morning, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said his group was no longer holding the soldier.

Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV reported that a high-level Hamas delegation arrived on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to hand over Shalit and to greet the returning prisoners.


In an elaborate operation, Shalit was then taken across Egypt's border into Israel and was being flown to the Tel Nof air base in central Israel to be reunited with his family.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was at the air force base with Shalit's family, telling them, "Gilad will be returning to you shortly," according to a statement from his office.

Asked in a brief TV appearance whether this was the happiest day of his life, Noam Schalit said, "Yes."

Noam Schalit has become a ubiquitous figure in Israel since his son's capture and led a massive campaign to press the government into bringing the 25-year-old home.

Before dawn, convoys of white vans and trucks transported hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to the locations in the West Bank and on the Israel-Egypt border where they were to be freed.


Preparations for a mass rally to greet the prisoners were in high gear in a large field in Gaza City. Hamas organizers set up neat rows of thousands of plastic chairs and erected a large stage that can hold hundreds of people. The stage was decorated with a huge mural depicting the capture of Schalit. Hamas orderlies handed out sandwiches and soft drinks to people arriving.

Armed Hamas security guards were deployed on rooftops overlooking the field.


In the West Bank, about 200 relatives of prisoners waited at a checkpoint as the exchange unfolded.

"We're so excited we can barely breathe," said Mariam Shkair, waiting for her brother, 52-year-old Abdel Latif, who spent 25 years in prison for killing an Israeli soldier. "We are waiting to hug him."

Some of the relatives raised Palestinian flags or the green banners of Hamas. A group of young men chanted, "We will continue our struggle."


The exchange, negotiated through Egyptian mediators because Israel and Hamas will not talk directly to each other, is going ahead despite criticism and court appeals in Israel against the release of the prisoners. Nearly 300 of them were serving lengthy sentences for involvement in deadly attacks.

The exchange involves a delicate series of staged releases, each one triggering the next. Red Cross and Egyptian officials are involved in facilitating the movement of prisoners.

When Tuesday's exchange is complete, 477 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including 27 women, will have been released, several of them after decades behind bars.

More than 200 prisoners, originally from the West Bank, will instead be sent to the fenced-off Gaza Strip. And some 40 prisoners will be deported to Syria, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, Palestinian officials said. Another 550 prisoners are slated to be released in two months.

Israel's Channel 10 TV said there was a delay at midmorning because two women were refusing to be sent to Gaza and instead asking to be sent to Egypt.


Little is known about Shalit's condition. Although he appeared healthy in the only time he has been seen in captivity - in a brief and scripted 2009 video released by Hamas - he was denied all visits, including by the Red Cross, and the state of his mental and physical health is unclear.

An intense media campaign to free Shalit made him a national symbol in Israel.

At the Schalits' hometown in Mitzpe Hila, an access road was guarded by police festooned with banners welcoming the soldier.

Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of talks through German and Egyptian mediators. But officials on both sides have said that conditions prompted in part by the recent Egyptian revolution helped drive them to an agreement. Both sides have been eager to have good ties with the new Egyptian leadership, which
brokered the deal.