Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier at the center of a prisoner swap deal between Israel and the Palestinians, has been returned to Israel after being freed by the Islamist Hamas movement.
The Israeli military said Shalit, who had been held since 2006, crossed into Israel Tuesday after Hamas transferred custody of him to Egypt earlier in the day.
Shalit, looking thin, gave an interview with Egyptian television after his release, saying he was in good health and missed his family and friends, VOA reports.
Officials told the Associated Press that an SUV filled with armed men had whisked Shalit across the border and quickly returned to Gaza early Tuesday.
The transfer kicked off what the AP described as "an elaborate prisoner swap deal" in which hundreds of Palestinian inmates were to be freed in return for the tank crewman captured five years ago.
The deal sees the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners initially and another 550 after the safe return of Shalit.
Early Tuesday, the first batch of prisoners was being grouped at two points ready to be ecorted by the Red Cross home to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as to exile via Egypt, The New York Times reports.
About 200 relatives of prisoners, meantime, were reportedly waiting at a West Bank checkpoint early Tuesday.
Shalit was to be transferred to the International Red Cross and cross into Egypt via the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza, the Jerusalem Post reports. He was then to cross into Israel and be transferred by helicopter to an Air Force base south of Tel Aviv for a preliminary medical check.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Olmert and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz were expected to greet Shalit at Tel Nof base and deliver him to a private room, where his family would be waiting, the Times reports.
Israeli television showed the Shalit family leaving their home in northern Israel to be taken by helicopter to the base.
Hamas, meantime, reportedly wanted to ensure that the prisoners' welcome home was a heavily guarded, tightly run and well publicised affair. The Times reports that:
In Gaza, the Hamas-run government took busloads of journalists in a tightly controlled media operation to the Rafah Crossing with Egypt shortly after dawn on Tuesday. Armed members of Hamas’s militant wing, the Qassan Brigades, lined the main highway to the crossing where the prisoners were to be released. They were wearing black and green bandanas and balaclavas. Some carried Kalashnikov assault rifles while others bore rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
At the crossing, a tent had reportedly been set up for Hamas dignitaries and family members to greet the prisoners. They were then to be driven an hour to Gaza City for a celebratory rally at Brigades Park, overseen by the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya.
Shalit's imprisonment by Hamas has, according to the AP, prompted multiple Israeli military offensives in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of negotiations that ended in deadlock over the past five-and-a-half years.
Bloomberg reports that the trade between Israel and its sworn enemy Hamas may help boost chances for peace talks:
The agreement comes as the U.S. and European Union push to revive talks that have been frozen for more than a year, a drive that became more urgent after Hamas’s rival Palestinian Authority began pressing for statehood recognition at the United Nations. Middle East envoy Tony Blair has said the swap may facilitate efforts to restart negotiations by creating a better atmosphere.
Israelis opposed to the deal had submitted petitions to the High Court of Justice early Monday, asking the court to prevent the exchange of 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for one Israeli soldier. The ruling is expected to be announced Monday evening.
(GlobalPost reports: Gilad Shalit: A retrospective (PHOTOS)
GlobalPost correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky, meantime, writes that, "Israel is gripped by a volatile emotional cocktail of barely contained exuberance and lurking dread" about the swap.