GAZA/JERUSALEM: Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians crossed Israel's borders in opposite directions on Tuesday as a 1000-for-one prisoner exchange brought joy to families but did little to ease decades of conflict.
In one of the biggest such exchanges between the two sides, Sergeant Shalit was flown to his parents' home in northern Israel after more than five years held incommunicado by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while a first 477 of over 1,000 Palestinians in the deal left Israeli jails for Gaza, the West Bank and abroad.
Hundreds of flag-waving well-wishers lined the streets of Shalit's rural home town. Many danced as a ceremonial shofar horn was blown when he arrived at nightfall after a day that he began, as nearly 2,000 before, hidden away somewhere in Gaza.
In the Palestinian coastal enclave, Hamas's Islamist leaders claimed vindication for uncompromising hostility toward Israel that, on Tuesday at least, overshadowed the efforts of rivals led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
"I missed my family very much," a gaunt Shalit, his breathing laboured at times, said in an interview with Egyptian television as he was moved through Egypt from Gaza. "I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcoming Shalit home, warned the former prisoners they would be "taking their life into their own hands" if they "returned to terror".
Defending a deal that left a bittersweet aftertaste in Israel, Netanyahu said he felt the pain of the relatives of Israelis killed by some of the Palestinians released, but saving a soldier from captivity was a Jewish Biblical imperative.
"It is a difficult day," he said, describing the price Israel paid for Shalit's release as high.
Shalit was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt's Sinai peninsula and driven to Israel's Kerem Shalom- Vineyard of Peace - border crossing, from where a helicopter flew him to an Israeli air base for a reunion with his parents.
Simultaneously Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip and many serving life terms for attacks that killed Israelis. Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.
Under the terms of the deal, 40 of those who had been jailed for involvement in deadly attacks were being deported from Palestinian territory. Turkey confirmed it would take in around 10, while others were destined for Syria and Qatar.
Egypt helped to mediate the long-awaited deal, and its army-backed interim government has sought to revive a role as a diplomatic linchpin in the Middle East.
Palestinians, awaiting the release of prisoners at a West Bank checkpoint, hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, after the military announced to the crowd over a loudspeaker that the group had been taken to another crossing.
In the television interview, Shalit said he found out a week ago that he was to be released. The soldier, who had not been seen since a 2009 video, said he had feared he would be held "for many more years".
Political commentators said it appeared unlikely the prisoner exchange agreed by the two bitter enemies would have any immediate impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down last year.
The mood in Israel was largely celebratory, with "welcome home" signs on street corners and morning commuters watching live broadcasts of the swap on cellular telephones.
Shalit has been popularly portrayed as "everyone's son" and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israelis backed the deal.
"I brought your boy home," Netanyahu said he told Shalit's parents, as he waited with them at the air base for the soldier's helicopter to land.
"Our son has been reborn," his father Noam said later, telling wellwishers that Shalit had some health problems due to lack of sunlight and of care for shrapnel wounds sustained when he was snatched in a border raid in which two comrades died.
In Ramallah, near Jerusalem, Qahera Assadi fainted after embracing her family again, nine years after being jailed for her part in helping an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber
"I must be dreaming," said Assadi, 34, as she greeted her husband and four children. "I did what I did in defence of mynation and children and have no regrets at all. I was kidnapped from my children and spent a decade in prison."
In Gaza, territory seized by Hamas in 2007 from Abbas's Fatah movement, a national holiday was declared and flag-waving young men drove through the streets. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh embraced the freed prisoners as they piled out of buses.
Other former prisoners also received a heroes' welcome in Ramallah, the headquarters of Abbas's West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
"This is the greatest joy for the Palestinian people," said Azzia al-Qawasmeh, who waited at a West Bank checkpoint for her son Amer, whom she said had been in prison for 24 years.