Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Israeli soldier freed in Hamas swap

Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit at an army base near the Kerem Shalom crossing near Gaza (AP)
People in Mitzpe Hila, northern Israel, react as they see first images of soldier Gilad Shalit after more than five years in captivity (AP)
Palestinian Hamas militants stand guard ahead of an exchange of prisoners with Israel (AP)

One thin and weary Israeli soldier has gone home after five years as a Hamas captive as hundreds of jailed Palestinians made the opposite journey, released as a swap for him.

Gilad Shalit was handed over to Egyptian mediators in an exchange for 1,027 Palestinians.

More than 450 were transferred from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and Gaza today, where massive celebratory rallies were held and crowds demanded more hostages like him be seized for future swaps. The rest of the prisoners - about 550 more - are to be released in a second phase in two months.

Before he was flown to an Israel air base where he reunited with his parents, Shalit spoke to Egyptian TV in an interview Israeli officials later called "shocking."

The gaunt, sallow and uncomfortable looking Shalit appeared to struggle to speak at times, and his breathing was noticeably laboured as he awkwardly answered questions He said he felt good and was "very excited" to be going free. But the circumstances of his release, along with the awkward TV interview, raised questions about the conditions the 25-year-old had endured.

Shalit, who had not been seen in public since his capture, was whisked across Gaza's border into Egypt early in the morning by armed Hamas militants in an SUV, setting the swap into motion.

Stumbling over his words, he spoke in the TV interview of missing his family and friends, said he feared he would remain in captivity "many more years" and worried that the deal might fall through after learning about it last week.

Israel reacted angrily to the interview, saying it was inappropriate to force Shalit to answer questions in such difficult circumstances. But the interviewer, Shahira Amin, said he had not been forced.

Military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in "good" condition, though he showed signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to the sun.

Shalit was then flown to an air base in central Israel, where he was met by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reunited with his family. He was later flown home to the small town of Mitzpe Hila where thousands took to the streets to welcome him back.

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