Freed Israeli Soldier Returns Home: 'We Have Experienced the Rebirth of a Son'

Sgt. Shalit returned home for the first time since being captured in 2006.

October 18, 2011, 4:45 AM

Oct. 18, 2011— -- Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit returned home for the first time since being captured by Hammas militants in 2006 and was greeted by throngs of people dancing in the streets of his home village, Mitzpe Hillal.

"Today we can say that we have experienced the rebirth of a son," Noam Shalit, Sgt. Shalit's father, said during a press conference. "Gilad is very happy to be home. ... [He] walked back through the same door he exited 1,942 days ago."

Noam Shalit said the first thing the family did was hug and sit down together for a meal.

"He hasn't told us much so far," Shalit said. "[Gilad] said the conditions were very bad at first, but then improved."

According to Noam, Gilad needs to recover from a shrapnel wound, lack of sunlight and the effects of five years in prison. He hopes it won't take too long for his son to "return to a normal life."

In exchange for Gilad's release Israel and the Palestinians began a controversial and lopsided prisoner swap in which Israel is releasing 1,027 Palestinians for Gilad's freedom.

"This deal is not easy," Noam Shalit said, referring to the price other families are paying for the freedom of his son.

Gilad Shalit was taken across the border and into Egypt early Tuesday in an SUV filled with armed men who quickly returned to Gaza.

In his first public comments on Egyptian TV, Shalit said that he is "very excited."

"I hope this deal would contribute to the peace between Israel and Palestinians," he said Tuesday. "I will be very glad if they will be freed but they should not fight Israel anymore, it should be as part of a peace process and there should not be more wars."

"I missed my family very much, I missed my friends , I want to be out, I want to tell people what it is I went through," he said. "I would like very much for the remaining Palestinian prisoners to be released if they will not turn back and fight Israel again. I hope this deal will help bring peace closer between Israel and the Palestinians and cooperation between the two sides."

According to officials, buses filled with Palestinian prisoners also moved into Egypt from Israel carrying some 478 prisoners. Two months from today the remaining Palestinian prisoners to be released as part of the same deal will be allowed to return to their homes and families.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, talking to the press gathered outside the Tel Nof air force base, said he reached the best deal for the release of Shalit although the price Israel is paying is a heavy one. Netanyahu said there was a possibility the window of opportunity could have closed before a deal with Hamas was struck and Shalit might have disappeared forever.

Netanyahu was on the tarmac as the Sikorsky helicopter which flew Shalit from the south of Israel landed. Shalit, wearing the IDF uniform, saluted Netanyahu, then they walked together the short distance to the building where Shalit was reunited with his parents.

Palestinians reportedly waited until all 477 prisoners were moved into their territory before moving Sgt. Shalit, who until then was held in Egypt by armed men.

Of the 477 Palestinian prisoners who are being released Tuesday almost 300 have one or more life sentences. Many Israelis have spoken out against the deal, but it is supported by around 80 percent of all Israelis.

Prisoners that have been banned from the Judea and Samaria Region, residents of the Gaza Strip and prisoners who are to be sent abroad will be transferred to Egypt via the Kerem Shalom crossing, while prisoners that are to be released in the Judea and Samaria Region will be transferred through an access point on a road near the Ofer Prison.

In Gaza, some 200,000 people gathered to welcome the prisoners back, including top Hamas officials. In the West Bank, a celebration at the presidential compound known as the Moqata turned violent as relatives and supporters of the prisoners tried to enter. Prisoners were hoisted on top of shoulders and paraded about as many of those welcoming them home waved Hamas flags, a rare sight in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

An organization of families that have lost loved ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is supportive of today's prisoner exchange.

Robi Damelin is a spokesperson for The Parents Circle/Families Forum, and an Israeli who lost her own son when he was killed by a Palestinian nine years ago. She says the prisoner exchange could be the start of a reconciliation process similar to the one that occurred when civil strife ended between South Africa and Ireland.

"People will feel a sense of good will. And a sense of good will in knowing each other will create some impetus for the peace process which has been stuck for so long," Damelin said. "It's more and more apparent to be that without a framework for a reconciliation process in any future peace agreement, it has to be an integral part. We can't just have another cease fire."

ABC News Radio, Bruno Nota and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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