Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'It's Been a Very Long Five Years, but I Always Knew I'd Go Home'

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'It's Been a Very Long Five Years, but I Always Knew I'd Go Home'

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicholas Cecil Chief Political Correspondent

HOLLOW-EYED and pale, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit today spoke of his joy at being returned to his family after an historic prisoner swap deal with Hamas.

"It's been a very long five years but I always knew that I would go home," said the 25-year-old, after taking his first shaky steps watched by the world.

As the soldier who has become an emblem of the region's desperate politics was handed over by Hamas, Israel started releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return.

The momentous 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.

Sergeant Shalit was first taken across the Rafah crossing to Egypt before being flown back to Israel to be reunited with his family who never gave up hope that one day they would again see him alive. "Today, Gilad Shalit is with us," said Israeli army spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai as joy erupted across Israel at his release.

But the elation was mixed with regrets at the freeing of hundreds of Palestinians accused of attacks on Israelis. In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, thousands of Palestinians gathered to welcome home as heroes the freed inmates in what was being seen by many as a victory for Hamas.

Early this morning, Sgt Shalit was whisked by Hamas across the border from Gaza into Egypt.

Looking dazed, thin and pale, he emerged from a pick-up truck under the escort of his Hamas captors and the Egyptian mediators who helped arrange the Israeli tank crewman's release. Wearing a black cap and grey shirt he appeared close to tears.

He was seized in 2006 by militants who had tunnelled into Israel and is the first Israeli soldier to be returned alive in more than 25 years.

Today, struggling to breath in an interview with Eygptian TV, he told of his fears that he would remain a captive for many more years.

He was told about a week ago that he was being freed but still worried that "things may go wrong."

His father Noam, who has led a huge campaign for the Israeli government to bring his son home alive, said today was the best day of his life. …

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