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After 5 years in captivity, Shalit is back home

Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has arrived in his northern Israeli hometown, his first day of freedom after more than five years in Hamas captivity.

He took off with his family for home Tuesday, leaving Tel Nof air base for the town of Mitzpe Hila. The helicopter carrying him landed near the town. He made his way by car from the helipad to the village and was whisked into his home.

In the Gaza and the West Bank, jubilant Palestinians greeted the return of prisoners.

Greeted along the road by hundreds of chanting and flag-waving supporters, people in the Galilee town laid out white roses and hung banners to welcome him back, erupting in joy at the return of the young man who became an international cause célèbre.

"The commanders and soldiers of the IDF respect you and are proud of your tenacity and resilience throughout these years. We will continue to support you for as long as you need," Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff said in a statement.

"On behalf of your fellow soldiers, who carry on their shoulders your generation's guardianship of the country, whether in the land, sea or air, in their offices or in the field, throughout the country, whether in their tanks, or artillery batteries, in their planes or in their ships -- in the name of the whole of the IDF, I congratulate you and your family upon your return to us."

Shalit was released Tuesday morning in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, given medical checks that showed him to be in good health, and flown to an air force base to meet his family.

The helicopter ride to Tel Nof air base, where he was reunited with his family, was "very emotional for Gilad," IDF spokesman Brig.Gen.Yoav Mordechai said.

Shalit's father grabbed him in a bear hug, held him tight and kissed him as they were reunited. The father told Israeli television earlier it was the happiest day of his life.

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He was cleared to go home after a second round of medical checks on Tuesday, the IDF said.

Shalit learned about a week ago that he was going to be released, though he "felt it for the last month," he told Egyptian television after his release.

"I missed my family. I missed going out and meeting people," he said in the emotional interview, where he appeared pale, tired, tense, and sometimes out of breath, although he was seated in a chair.

"I hope this deal will move the peace process forward," he told Shahira Amin of Egyptian TV, saying he would be glad if the remaining Palestinian prisoners are released "as long as they do not go back to fighting Israel."

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The interview came shortly after Egyptian television showed a short clip of Shalit walking unaided with an escort of about a half-dozen people. He looked thin and dazed, wearing a dark baseball cap and collared shirt.

Shalit came via Egypt because it acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, which do not have relations.

Back in uniform, Shalit saluted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on arrival at Tel Nof air base.

Israel freed 477 Palestinian inmates from Israeli jails shortly before Shalit was released, the first group of a batch of Palestinians being swapped for Shalit's freedom.

Enormous crowds of Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza, waving flags and banners, to welcome the inmates home. Greeted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniya, prisoners went on a stage before a jubilant throng. Most of the crowd waved Hamas banners but some hoisted the flag of Fatah.

Haniya wept tears of joy as he hugged and kissed those who crossed into Gaza.

Ahmed Qawasmi, 80, was awaiting the release of his son Amer, who was arrested when he was 17 and has been in jail 24 years.

"I am very, very happy for the release of my son Amer," he said, adding: "The celebrations and happiness won't be complete until all Palestinian prisoners are free from Israeli prisons."

Nabil Hamouz, 21, told CNN he was waiting for the release of his mother Hanan, 42, who has served one year of a 2 1/2-year sentence for trying to stab an Israeli soldier.

"I am very happy and can't wait to hug my mother again," he said, weeping.

Freed prisoners praised Egypt's role as a mediator in interviews on Palestinian television after they were released.

Some are being sent to the West Bank and others to Gaza, while just under half are being sent abroad. A handful are going to homes in Jerusalem, elsewhere in Israel or to Jordan.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted some of them with hugs at his compound in the West Bank.

Abbas told cheering crowds they had "fought and sacrificed, and you will see the results of your struggle in an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

And he said more prisoners will be released.

"I am not revealing a secret here. I do not reveal a secret. If I say that there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government to release more prisoners, the same number of prisoners released on this deal, once this current deal is over and therefore, we demand from them to honor their pledge if making pledges is a responsible act on their end," Abbas said.

Hamas official Hassan Youssef welcomed the release of some prisoners, but said it was not enough.

"We are all shedding two tears: One tear for the release of all of our fighters, and a tear of pain for all of our brothers still in prison," he said.

Netanyahu used strikingly similar language to describe his nation's emotions at the release of Shalit in exchange for convicted attackers of Israelis.

"Today we are all united in joy and in pain. ... This is also a hard day; even if the price had been smaller, it would still have been heavy," he said.

Israel handed the freed inmates, many of who were serving long sentences for involvement in killing Israelis, to the Red Cross at the Egyptian border, according to Sivan Weitzman, spokeswoman for Israel's prison authority.

There was some violence in the West Bank when Israel announced a change to the location of the release of prisoners there, CNN saw.

Palestinian families who were waiting for relatives to be freed responded angrily, with some throwing stones. Israeli troops responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and foul-smelling sprays. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Longtime Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erakat conceded Tuesday that Hamas, an Islamist group, had succeeded in getting the prisoners released when the secular nationalist Fatah, to which he and Abbas belong, had not.

Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, agreed last week to a two-stage release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences for attacks on Israelis.

The second stage is scheduled to take place later this year.

The Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the swap for Shalit, an Israeli army sergeant who was abducted in a raid in 2006, when he was a 19-year-old corporal.

He has been held by Hamas since then, with no known contact from the outside world except a letter from his parents passed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

About eight out of 10 Israelis favor the deal, according to the poll of 500 people conducted by the Dahaf Polling Institute for the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper.

Israelis are equally split on whether "the release of terrorists" will harm Israeli security, with 50% saying "yes" and 48% saying "no" -- a statistical tie given the number of people polled.

The most notable Palestinian prisoner not being released in the deal is jailed lawmaker Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences. He was convicted in an Israeli court of murder and other charges related to his role in planning attacks on Israelis during the second Intifada.

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