It was not long after 10am yesterday, seconds after the small crowd watching the big open air TV screen at the end of the Shalits' street began to stir and clap, that Dor Peled (25) knew for certain that his good friend was coming home at last.
Breaking off a conversation, he strode towards the screen in time to watch, transfixed, as Israeli TV showed a continuous loop of the very first video pictures of Gilad Shalit on Egyptian soil, still dressed in the baseball cap and grey open-necked shirt he had left Gaza in. Silent for several minutes, he said at last: “It gives me goose bumps. It's amazing. He looks thin but it's so good to see him walking.”
It would be another six-and-a-half hours before the two Israeli airforce helicopters — one carrying his friend and his parents Noam and Aviva — hummed into view, low against a darkening sky above Mitzpe Hila. And another 30 minutes before the long convoy with its police motorcycle escort moved up the road lined with the village's excited residents.
Through the darkened windows of the first of three SUVs you could just glimpse the pale young Sergeant First Class before the convoy turned left through the cheering crowd and up to the home he had left for the last time as a 19-year-old conscript corporal more than five years ago.
The momentous day for Israel and its Occupied Territories has, in the short-term, significantly strengthened both the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas, the hitherto shunned Islamic Palestinian faction that had long held Sgt Shalit.
Sgt Shalit appeared on Egyptian television in an interview that an Israeli official told AP had “shocked” his government, even as it was greeted warmly by residents of his village.
He told the Egyptian interviewer that he was glad Palestinian captives were also being freed.
Noam Shalit later told reporters that his son was healthy overall, but would need time to recover. He said: “The first thing that we did when Gilad came home was to have a family meal.”
Footage showed Mr Netanyahu greeting the freed soldier at the Tel Nof base. His right-wing supporters were sceptical over the release of militants with “blood on their hands”. The Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel needed to “rethink” how it dealt with the issue of captured soldiers.
But in Mitzpe Hila, there were no such caveats. “There was no way we could not support it, no matter what the price is,” said Karen Asscher, 50, the mother of two five-year-old twins.
“I understand the feelings of those families who had members murdered by the prisoners released, but as Noam said: 'My son is alive and I am not going to give up on him'.”
“I hugged him (Shalit) as he came down the helicopter, escorted him to his parents, and told them: ‘I brought your son back home'. But this is still a difficult day, because even though the price was lowered, it was heavy.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister
“We shall spare no efforts to liberate the rest of our brothers and sisters. We urge the Al Qassam Brigades (the Hamas military wing) to kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars.”
Yehiye Sinwar, a Hamas leader released yesterday