TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel - Looking thin, weary and dazed, an Israeli soldier returned home Tuesday from more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners whose joyful families greeted them with massive celebrations.
Sgt. Gilad Schalit, in a brief interview with Egyptian TV before being transferred to Israel, said he was "very excited to taste freedom and had missed his family and friends. He said he feared he would remain in captivity "many more years" and worried since being told of the deal last week that last-minute hitches might cause it to collapse.
"Of course I missed my family. I missed friends, meeting people to talk to people, and not to sit all day, to do the same things," he said.
But Schalit's physical appearance raised questions about the condition of his captivity in the hands of the Hamas militant group. The 25-year-old appeared pale and gaunt, shifted in his seat, struggled to breathe and seemed to mumble as he answered the questions.
Later, Israeli TV stations showed him being helped into an army jeep after crossing the border into Israel. And military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in good condition.
Hamas agreed to release Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of them serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis. The arrivals of the prisoners set off ecstatic celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large crowds and dignitaries greeted them.
In Gaza, prisoners embraced and shook hands with Hamas leaders at the Rafah border crossing. Some prisoners were carried on the shoulders of others. Palestinian dignitaries formed a reception line, like at a wedding, shaking hands and in some cases hugging the prisoners.
In the West Bank, released prisoners were taken to the grave of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them, and several thousand people filled the courtyard outside his headquarters to celebrate.
"We thank God for your return and your safety," Abbas said. "You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland."
But the return was marred by violence at a crossing between the West Bank and Israel. Military officials said troops fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that began to riot because of delays in the release. No injuries were reported.
The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps 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.