Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held captive by the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip since 2006, is back in Israel after being freed by his Hamas captors.
"Hello Gilad, welcome back to Israel. It's so good to have you back home," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Tel Nof airbase where Shalit was reunited with his family.
Israel had earlier started releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, who have been promised in exchange for Shalit's safe return.
Shalit was first released to Egyptian authorities before being handed over to Israel. In his first public comments following his release, in an interview with Egyptian state TV, Shalit said he was "excited" and "happy" to be headed home.
"I am very emotional. I haven't seen people in a long time. I missed my family," he said. "I miss seeing people and talking to them."
That interview prompted anger in Israel, because it seemed forced on him even before he was able to see his family.
Egypt played a key role in the indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, as did Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel specifically thanked Egypt in a statement welcoming the return of Shalit, saying, "Successful cooperation between Israel and Egypt on this issue gives grounds for hope that recent tensions between them will give way to good neighborly relations."
Merkel did not mention the involvement of the German intelligence services in the mediation for the swap, but German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement, "I'm happy that Germany could contribute to Gilad Shalit's release ... This is an expression of our friendship with Israel."
A rare swap
A captured Israeli soldier has not been released to Israel alive in 26 years and the total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be released is the highest price ever paid by the Jewish state for one person.
Shalit was captured in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups. He was 19 at the time. His ordeal has captivated the whole nation - he was last seen in video footage in September 2009. His release would resolve one of the most emotive issues between the two sides.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US for its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Heroes for both sides
The mood in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank was joyful. Opinion polls published in Israeli newspapers show support for the prisoner exchange is high. Seventy-nine percent of the Israeli public backs the deal, despite the high price.
There is also support across Palestinian society for the prisoner exchange. The capture of Shalit and subsequent release negotiations have strengthened the standing of Hamas. There are some 6,000 Palestinian security prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Before the second Palestinian Intifada there were less than 1,000.
Some of the Palestinian prisoners to be released were involved in deadly attacks against Israelis, and a number of the victims' families have criticized the swap. Others have been supportive of the move.
Under the deal 477 Palestinian prisoners were released on Tuesday, with another 550 to be released within the next two months. Some of the prisoners headed to Hamas-controlled Gaza, while others were released into the West Bank. About 40 are being sent into exile in Turkey, Qatar and Syria.
Author: Rob Mudge, Holly Fox (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler