TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel » Looking thin, weary and dazed, an Israeli soldier returned home Tuesday from more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners whose joyful families greeted them with massive celebrations.
Gilad Schalit, in a brief interview with Egyptian TV before being transferred to Israel, said he was "very excited" to taste freedom and had missed his family and friends. He said he feared he would remain in captivity "many more years" and worried since being told of the deal last week that last-minute hitches might cause it to collapse.
"Of course I missed my family. I missed friends, meeting people to talk to people, and not to sit all day, to do the same things," he said.
But Schalit’s physical appearance raised questions about the condition of his captivity in the hands of the Hamas militant group. The 25-year-old appeared pale and gaunt, shifted in his seat, struggled to breathe and seemed to mumble as he answered the questions.
Later, video released by the military showed him being helped into an army jeep after crossing the border into Israel, and walking gingerly down a set of steps from a military caravan after changing his clothes into a fresh army uniform. Still, military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in good shape.
Later, he was flown on a helicopter to an air base in central Israel for a reunion with his family hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu told an audience that he understood the pain of Israeli families who lost relatives in Palestinian violence, but that Israel’s ethos of doing everything possible to bring its soldiers home safely forced him to act.
He also issued a staunch warning to the freed militants. "We will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable," he said.
Those concerns were underscored with comments by one of the freed prisoners, Hamas militant leader Yehia Sinwar, who called on the movement to kidnap more soldiers.
Hamas agreed to release Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of them serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis. The arrivals of the prisoners set off ecstatic celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large crowds and dignitaries greeted them.
In Gaza, prisoners embraced and shook hands with Hamas leaders at the Rafah border crossing.
Tens of thousands of flag-waving Palestinians celebrated at a rally that quickly turned into a show of strength by the Islamic militant group, which seized control of Gaza from its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007.
On a sandy lot, a huge stage was set up and decorated with a mural depicting Schalit’s capture in a June 2006. Thousands hoisted green Hamas flags.
"My happiness is indescribable," said Azhar Abu Jawad, a 30-year-old woman who celebrated the return of a brother who had been sentenced to life for killing an Israeli in 1992.
"We’ll get him a bride and everything. I just spoke to him. He’s so happy. This is a reminder, God doesn’t forget anyone," she said.
In the West Bank, released prisoners were taken to the grave of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them, and several thousand people filled the courtyard outside his headquarters to celebrate.
"We thank God for your return and your safety," Abbas said. "You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland."
The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps a five-and-a-half-year saga that has seen multiple Israeli military offensives in Gaza, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of failed negotiations.
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Tia Goldenberg and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.