In this handout photo provided by the Israeli Defense Force, freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Tel Nof Airbase on Tuesday. Photo by IDF via Getty Images.
After being held for more than five years in the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit arrived back in Israel Tuesday as part of a massive prisoner swap that will free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Shalit was captured at the age of 19 during an ambush on an Israeli army post, prompting Israel to launch an invasion in Gaza days later and setting off 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,” according to the Associated Press. Hamas militants had claimed responsibility for holding him captive.
Shalit was transported from Gaza into Egypt before flying to Israel, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family. Shalit was interviewed by an Egyptian media outlet before flying to Israel. The New York Times described his response:
Asked what he missed most in prison, he replied, “My family and my friends and seeing and talking with people. The worst was having to do the same thing every day over and over.”
He was told that Israel still had thousands of prisoners and was asked if he would like them released. “I will be happy for them to be released if they don’t return to fight us,” he said. “I very much hope that this deal will advance peace.”
Shalit is the first Israeli soldier to be released in 26 years.
As part of the exchange, 477 Palestinian prisoners were released at the same time, with 550 more slated to be released in coming months. Thousands of people converged on the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters, waving flags and chanting for the return of prisoners, some of whom had been held for decades.
The release has sparked controversy within Israel, as some of those released in the exchange had been convicted of violent attacks on Israelis. Netanyahu expressed sympathy for those whose family members has been killed and said Israel “will continue to fight terror and every released terrorist who returns to terror will be held accountable.”
“In the zero-sum game of Palestinian politics, this swap does not bring a peace deal closer. It strengthens Hamas and weakens Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — the only one who can negotiate with Israel.”
Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is much apprehension in Israel about the exchange and the possibility that the released prisoners might strike again. But in a small country with a citizen army, there is an ethos of trying to bring home every citizen soldier, he said.