Gilad Shalit on his way home to Israel

Gilad Shalit

Gilad Shalit

Gilad Shalit is on his way home after more than five years as a prisoner of Hamas.

The Israeli soldier was released in Gaza early this morning into the hands of Egyptian mediators, as part of the first stage in a prisoner swap deal.

A Hamas spokesman said; "The captured soldier handover process is under way.”

He is to undergo a medical examination before being taken across the border into Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing and flown to the Tel Nof Air Force base to be reunited with his family.

His father, Noam, said: "You can say this is one of the happiest days of my life."

In total, 1027 Palestinian prisoners will be freed before their sentences are finished in return for Sergeant Shalit, who was 19 when he was captured by terrorists at the Gaza border.

Today, 27 female prisoners and 450 male ones are being released, with the remainder to follow before the end of the year.

The soldier was released despite the attempts by the families of terror victims, who asked Israel's high court to stop the release of Palestinians convicted of some of the worst terror attacks in Israel’s history.

But the judges said they were not entitled to interfere in Israeli government policy. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch said: “It is clear that Gilad Shalit's fate depends on these hours. Any change to the agreement may prevent it from being carried out and could even endanger Gilad's life.”

Sergeant Shalit’s continued imprisonment has been a rallying point in Israel and for Jews around the world, who have campaigned for Hamas to release him. In the years that he was a captive, Hamas refused to allow the Red Cross access on humanitarian grounds and gave only a few indications of his welfare.

His release has prompted celebrations in Israel and further afield. There are still several other Israeli soldiers who remain classified as missing in action, including Ron Arad, who was captured when his plane was shot down in Lebanon in 1986.

Last updated: 10:20am, October 18 2011