Jerusalem, Oct 18 : Abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walked a free man into his country today after 1,941 days in Hamas captivity declaring that there should be no more wars as his release raised hopes of a breakthrough in peace negotiations.
Gillard, the first Jewish prisoner to return home alive in 26 years, triggered massive wave of joy in the Jewish state with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally greeting him saying “Welcome to Israel, it's good that you're home.”
Before the 25-year-old Shalit met with his parents, Netanyahu told them: “I brought you back your child.” The celebratory mood was not confined to Israel as huge crowds of Palestinians waved and cheered to welcome home hundreds of freed detainees in the West Bank and Gaza.
The historic first ever prisoner swap between Israelis and the radical Palestinian group took place at the Rafah crossing and got underway when a SUV filled with armed men sped into Sinai from Gaza to hand Shalit over to Egyptians before zipping back across the border.
His transfer to Egypt set in motion the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in a long-awaited deal signed last week.
Timed with Shalit's handover, buses carrying the first batch of 477 prisoners headed for Gaza and the West Bank.
“Gillard has returned home,” chief army spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai said in a press conference at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which was broadcast live on Israeli TV and radio stations.
Dressed in Khaki military fatigue, Shalit entered the Israeli territory after spending five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip following his abduction in a cross border raid in June 2005.
Speaking to a television channel immediately after being handed over to Egyptian authorities by Hamas, a visibly relieved Shalit said he hoped there won't be any more wars with Palestine.
“I hope this deal will promote peace. I hope there would be no wars between Israel and the Palestinians”, 25-year-old Shalit, who was seen having trouble speaking and gave short responses to the questions, told Egyptian Television in an interview.
Shalit was passed into Egyptian custody around 8 am local time under the historic prisoner exchange deal.
His release was the fruit of a hard-won prisoner exchange deal with the Islamist Hamas movement which controls Gaza.
A first batch of prisoners were released today, while a second group of 550, whose names have yet to be decided, will be freed within two months.
In altogether, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would be released by Israel in exchange of Shalit, whose return was much awaited by local Israeli population.
All the Palestinian prisoners to go free in this round of swap were transfered to locations on the Gaza border, in the West Bank and, in the case of the Israeli Arab prisoners included in the deal, East Jerusalem.
As dawn broke, the first convoy of prisoners from Ketziot prison arrived at Ofer jail, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, and a short time later another convoy of prisoners, also from Ketziot, arrived at the Kerem Shalom crossing, where they were to be delivered to Gaza via Egypt.
The prisoners were to be taken off the buses and identified at Kerem Shalom before being handed over to Red Cross officials who would transfer them to Egyptians.
The last legal obstacle to the release of Shalit was effectively removed yesterday evening after the Israeli Supreme Court rejected petitions opposing the swap deal. The petitions were filed by families of terror victims who were killed in attacks planned, ordered and/or perpetrated by some of those being freed in the deal.
Senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, who was one of the negotiators in the Gilad Shalit swap deal, has said that Israel agreed to various other conditions in exchange, including lifting of blockade on Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu had yesterday deplored the Palestinians' refusal to enter into direct peace talks with Israel at the upcoming international Quartet talks on Middle East peace.
The Quartet, involving the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia launched an effort on September 23 to restart suspended peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, acting after Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas formally submitted his request to the United Nations for Palestine to be admitted as a full member.
The Quartet stated last month that there would be a meeting “between the parties,” meaning Israelis and Palestinians sitting down face to face to hammer out an agenda and a method of proceeding in the negotiations.