TEL AVIV // Looking gaunt and pale, the soldier known across Israel as "everyone's son" returned home yesterday after spending more than five years in captivity in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The mood was of elation in Israel as many watched live television footage of Gilad Shalit's release, described by his father as the "rebirth of a son". He was taken hostage in 2006 when militants attacked his tank crew along the border between Israel and Gaza. His release was part of a landmark deal with Hamas, under which Israel was obligated to free 1,027 Palestinians from its jails.
While the arrival in Israel of the 25-year-old soldier was widely greeted with joy, it also sparked controversy. Many feel Israel has paid a price too high in the "thousand-to-one" swap, especially the relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks.
People remained glued to their television sets or mobile phones for hours to watch live coverage of Mr Shalit being transferred from Gaza into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. He was then driven to Israel less than five hours after the swap began.
Signs reading "Welcome home" were hung on street corners throughout the country, while trees were planted at the entrance to the verdant northern Israeli community of Mitzpe Hila where his family lives. Just outside the hilltop village, dozens of reporters and television and radio crews gathered to await his arrival.
As he was driven home by a white van later in the day, cheering onlookers lined the street leading to his home, chanting "Gilad returned home in peace" and waving Israeli flags.
One of the first images of Mr Shalit came in an interview he conducted with Egyptian state television just before he was transferred to Israel. He appeared tired and uncomfortable with dark circles under his eyes and seemed at times to be out of breath as he waited for the reporter's questions, asked in English, to be translated into Hebrew.
Donning a buttoned-up, blue-and-white chequered shirt and with his dark hair cropped close to his head, he told the interviewer that he was "excited" to be reunited with his family.
He said that he received news of his release a week ago but had already felt for the past month that a deal was brewing. He added: "I was happy but worried that the [negotiation] contacts may go wrong." He also said that he "missed meeting and talking to people and not sitting all day and being lonely".
Asked if he would now help to campaign for the release of more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners remaining in Israeli jails, he said he would be happy if they were freed to go back to their families. He also said he hoped the deal "would bring to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it would support cooperation between both sides".
Mr Shalit's return capped off an intensive public relations campaign by his parents to pressure the country's leaders to make the necessary compromises with Hamas that would lead to their son's release. The effort included marches, protests, the distribution of bumper stickers and T-shirts with his face plastered on them, as well as yellow ribbons expressing solidarity with the campaign.
His captivity resonated with many parents in a country that requires most 18-year-old Jews to join the army, and in which Jewish citizens appear to have an unofficial contract with the government that soldiers taken hostage should be returned at almost any price.
An overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the deal, but opposition came from families of victims of Palestinian suicide attacks and from right-wing Israelis who warned the released prisoners would renew violence against Israel.
The agreement with Hamas, viewed by Israel as a terrorist organisation, stirred an intensive debate among Israelis about the high price the country was paying for the exchange of one soldier.
On Monday, relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks petitioned the supreme court in an attempt to stop the swap, but their petitions were rejected just hours before the transfer began.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said yesterday the swap "was the best possible agreement that we could have obtained". He was speaking at the air force base to which Mr Shalit was flown by helicopter to meet his family.
Acknowledging the controversy about the deal and suggesting that Hamas may not have obtained the release of as many inmates as it would have wanted, he added that the day was "exciting … but also difficult, because even if the price was minimised, it is still heavy".