In a dramatic day that took him from captivity in the Gaza Strip to his home village in northern Israel, soldier Gilad Shalit was freed Tuesday after more than five years as a prisoner of Palestinian militants.
His release was cause for celebration in Israel, and nowhere more so than in Mitzpe Hila, where he was welcomed by several hundred neighbors and close friends who had long pressed for his release.
In exchange for Shalit, Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of involvement in the deaths of Israelis. Nearly 500 of the Palestinian prisoners were released Tuesday, and a second batch will be free in about two months.
In Mitzpe Hila, the crowd first caught sight of Shalit on a big-screen TV erected on the street corner in front of his house. The TV announcer says that Shalit had landed on Israeli soil, and the crowd here immediately broke into chants of, "Gilad has come back home safe and sound."
But it was several hours before Shalit made his way to his childhood home, a quiet village nestled in the hills of northern Israel. The 130 families that live in Mitzpe Hila are close-knit, says Zoar Bar-Shalom, who lives down the street from the Shalit family.
"I'm speechless," said Bar-Shalom. "We've been waiting for this for a long time and finally it's happening, so it's just so overwhelming."
Also outside his home were the supporters of the Free Gilad Shalit campaign. Dozens of activists say they campaigned ceaselessly for the release of Shalit since he was captured in June 2006. He was seized by militants who dug a tunnel from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and snatched Shalit from his military post.
Ohad Kerner has never met Shalit, but he says that freeing him was his "life's work."
"Until now I have only seen posters of him," he said. "I have ... campaigned for him, but now to know the man himself is home is overwhelming."
Kerner says he felt a sense of relief wash over him as soon as he knew Shalit was on Israeli soil, a sense he feels is shared by many across Israel.
"I think we are a country that feels this unity naturally. It was very difficult, and we have had a lot of disappointments. But we persevered," he said.
Israelis Faced Difficult Choice
Still, the deal to release Shalit was a difficult one for some Israelis because the price was the release of so many Palestinians serving life sentences for terrorist attacks. Kerner says he can understand the pain of families who have watched those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones go free, but he still thinks it was the right thing to do.
Peleg Salouk and his girlfriend, Linor Elichai, also thought Israel had no choice but to bring Shalit home. Salouk says he felt a great deal of solidarity with Shalit.
"I joined the same unit as Gilad," Salouk said. "To me it was important. I was very proud to serve in the same unit as him. I wasn't scared because I saw how people cared for him."
At sundown, the couple stood arm in arm, waiting for the convoy of vans carrying the Shalit family to make its way up the hill to their home.
Many in the crowd threw white roses at the van, as they craned to catch a glimpse of Shalit sitting between his mother and father. As the vans drove past, Elichai broke down into tears.
"I'm emotional. I'm touched. I put myself in his shoes," Elichai said. "It's just the most, the most emotional thing."
The Shalits said in a statement to the press that Gilad was happy to be home and was recovering from his captivity. They asked only to be allowed to return to their normal, quiet lives.