IRISH TIMES, Saturday, July 10, 2010
MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem
FOUR YEARS after their soldier son Gilad was captured in a cross-border raid from Gaza, Noam and Aviva Shalit took to the road on a 12-day pilgrimage from their home on the Lebanese border to Jerusalem in an attempt to finally secure his freedom.
More than 200,000 people are believed to have joined them on the march, which attracted adoring press coverage and a raft of celebrities from supermodel Bar Refaeli to “Three Tenors” conductor Zubin Mehta, who staged a special concert for the family by the Israel Philharmonic in the desert on the Gaza border.
Hamas has demanded the release of 1,000 prisoners held by Israel for Sgt Shalit’s safe return (he was promoted from corporal while in captivity), including dozens responsible for the bloodiest suicide bomb attacks of the last intifada.
In polls, 72 per cent of Israelis said they were prepared to pay that price, and a similar number said they saw no other way to secure Sgt Shalit’s release. More than 80 per cent said they backed the Shalit family’s decision to take to the streets to pressure the Israeli government after four frustrating years in which their son has been denied any access from the Red Cross or other independent outsiders. The last communication was a video message recorded by Hamas almost a year ago.
“Four years of hell is too much,” Aviva Shalit told a rally in Jerusalem marking the end of their long march and the start of a vigil in a protest tent outside the official residence of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, where a huge portrait of the soldier hangs alongside a counter recording the number of days since his capture.
“There are no more excuses. My son has endured 1,474 days of hardship and pain in Hamas captivity. The time has come to say Stop! Enough!” she declared.
Israel is haunted by the experience of previous prisoner exchanges, when the release of convicted terrorists has backfired badly.
In a speech on July 1st that enraged the Shalit family, Mr Netanyahu, whose brother was killed leading the Entebbe rescue of hostages in 1976, said Israel could not pay “any price” for the soldier’s release.
“The most famous deal was the Jibril deal of 1985, in the framework of which 1,150 terrorists were released. Almost half of them returned to engage in terror and to murder dozens of Israelis at their own hands,” he said.
He must also consider the political cost of rewarding Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom the Israelis are trying to open direct peace talks.
The Hamas list of prisoners to be released is headed by Marwan Barghouti, Mr Abbas’s likely successor as Fatah leader and Palestinian president.