Waves of joy and relief washed over the crowd in the Israeli village of Mitzpe Hila Tuesday, as a convoy carrying Gilad Shalit brought him home after 1,941 days in captivity.
Thousands of Israelis packed the streets of this village in northern Israel, cheering and whistling as military police vehicles escorted him and his family home from the field where they had landed in a military helicopter.
Well-wishers showered the vehicles with white carnations and roses, breaking into song and waving Israeli flags, as they chanted: “Gilad has returned home safely.”
As he got out of the van and walked to his front door, Shalit smiled and waved to the crowd, who were singing, dancing and revelling in the thrill of the young Israeli’s return.
For more than five years, Shalit’s family and their supporters fought for the soldier’s release, with the dream finally becoming a reality on Tuesday when he was freed under in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians prisoners.
In total 1,027 Palestinian detainees will be freed under the landmark agreement, with 477 released on Tuesday and another 550 within two months.
Shortly after the family returned home, Shalit’s father Noam came out to address the crowds.
“Today we experienced the rebirth of a son,” he said. “Today we are ending a long and tiring journey that began in June 2006.
“Gilad has come home after a long and tiring struggle.”
His son, he said, was “feeling good” although he was suffering from a few light shrapnel injuries which hadn’t been treated, and he was also suffering from a lack of sunlight.
“He will undergo rehabilitation and we hope this process will be quick as possible,” he said, thanking everyone who had made his son’s long-awaited release possible.
In Mitzpe Hila, dozens of villagers had gathered around dawn to watch the wall-to-wall coverage of Shalit’s return, which was broadcast on giant screens in the streets and at a local community centre.
“How good that you’ve come home!” read banners plastered across the hilltop village, echoing the lyrics of a popular Israeli song.
Nestled in the hills of northern Israel not far from the Lebanese border, officials had declared that the tiny village of 600 would be sealed to visitors and press.
But as the day wore on, the numbers grew and grew, bolstered by hundreds of photographers, reporters and well-wishers who flooded the village in order to welcome him home.
“This is simply a historic moment which we have waited for and longed for and now he has arrived,” Yossi Peled told AFP shortly after the family returned home.
“It’s simply amazing what has happened here.”
Inside the community centre, its walls covered with giant flags and banners, dozens of people watched the rolling coverage of events leading up to Shalit’s release, many of them breaking down in tears as the first pictures of him were broadcast on Egyptian state television.
“This is a great day for us and for Israel,” villager Sigal Sitton told AFP, her voice shaking with emotion.
Similar scenes were played out across Israel.
Down on the Israel-Gaza border, just a few kilometres (miles) from the spot where Shalit would eventually cross into Israel, a group of hardened Israeli cameramen rushed to their monitors to watch the Egyptian footage, breaking into spontaneous applause, an AFP correspondent reported.
It was another 40 minutes before the army’s chief spokesman confirmed that the young soldier had finally arrived in Israel and was declared to be in “satisfactory” condition.
“I have waited five years for this moment,” said Shimson Liebman, one of the villagers who ran the campaign to bring the captive soldier home.
“We sent a soldier on a mission and now we’ve brought him back,” he told AFP, wiping tears from his face.
On the lane leading to the Shalit family home, wellwishers had laid down 4,000 white flowers, an AFP correspondent said.
The night before, dozens of people had met in the village pub to drink to Shalit’s health.
But by sunrise, everyone was up and watching the story play out on the giant screens, although it was another six hours before officials confirmed that Shalit was finally back in Israel.