There couldn’t exist a clearer image of how many Israelis feel the pain of the Shalit family than that of what took place in northern Israel on Sunday morning.
A crowd estimated at 10,000, all dressed in blue and white T-shirts with Gilad’s image, strapped on backpacks, stood behind Noam and Aviva Shalit — the parents of the captive soldier — and set off on the first leg of what will be a long trek. The march for Gilad Shalit began in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila, near the northern border, and was set to continue for 11 days — ending in Jerusalem in front of the prime minister’s residence. The family says they will not leave Jerusalem until their son and brother, kidnapped four years ago while patrolling the Israel-Gaza border and held captive ever since, is released.
On the first day of the march, the procession stopped at Kibbutz Cabri, where Shalit attended high school, and continued to the northern city of Nahariya. At both stops, the marchers were greeted by huge rallies of supporters and decorations of yellow ribbons, balloons, and signs calling for Shalit’s release. At the first rally in Nahariya, Noam Shalit called on all Israeli citizens to join him in his march. On Monday, the procession continued south through the city of Acco, towards Haifa. The Shalit family, which until now has not taken up a public campaign on this scale, hopes to have more than 100,000 citizens take part in the march to Jerusalem.
The country could not be more united in its cry to bring Gilad Shalit home. But an emotional debate continues to take place over the price Israel should be willing to pay in order to make it happen. The purpose of the march is to put additional political pressure on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to meet the demands of Hamas.
News of the response to the latest Israeli offer to Hamas, sent six months ago through a German mediator, has been discouraging. The Jerusalem Post reported:
Hamas has not replied to an Israeli offer to release hundreds of terrorists — including more than 100 responsible for murdering more than 600 Israelis — in exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, on condition they do not return to the West Bank, but go either to the Gaza Strip or to another country. … The offer includes a willingness to release 450 Palestinian prisoners in negotiations with Hamas, and another 550 prisoners unilaterally as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority — meaning the Schalit deal would be one for 1,000.
This list of prisoners includes more than 100 terrorists with blood on their hands, but it does not include the so-called “mega-terrorists” responsible for mass attacks. Among the “mega-terrorists” are:
[those] responsible for the attacks at Jerusalem’s Sbarro restaurant where 15 people were killed in 2001; the Moment Café where 11 were killed in Jerusalem in 2002; Café Hillel where seven were killed in the capital in 2003; the Rishon Letzion attack where 16 were killed in 2002; the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv where 21 were killed in 200; and the Park Hotel in Netanya where 30 people were killed on Seder night in 2002.
These terrorists, responsible for the most horrific and bloody terror attacks and hunted down with such effort by the Israeli security forces, are the most difficult for the Israeli government to contemplate releasing, even if it means extending Shalit’s captivity. Release of these prisoners is assessed by the Israeli defense community as to present a direct security threat both to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which Hamas makes no secret of aspiring to topple.
There is also fear that a release will only encourage future kidnapping attempts. Some politicians argue that the Shalit kidnapping itself was a direct result of previous deals in which Israeli prisoners or the remains of dead soldiers were traded for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In addition to security concerns, there is a significant political lobby among the bereaved families of the victims of such tragedies — who have a significant hold on the heartstrings of Israelis and who do not want to see the murderers of their loved ones walk free — competing with the pull of the Shalit family.
Ynet columnist Shimon Shiffer doesn’t believe that any amount of public protest will be able to convince Netanyahu to free such dangerous terrorists:
We can assume that in Shalit’s case he will hold firm and act like a prime minister should.
But the pressure on the government from the Shalit family is formidable. Their position — secure Shalit’s release at any price — is supported by an op-ed piece that appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday titled “Make a Deal Now.” The article dismisses as “unconvincing” any argument by the government that releasing the most dangerous prisoners would represent a true national security threat. It is only a matter of time until the government concedes to public pressure and meets the Hamas demands, they argue. Why not just do it sooner instead of later?
Unfortunately, the march appears to be bolstering morale in Hamas as successfully as it boosts the spirits of the Shalit family. The Hebrew daily Israel Today quoted a “senior Palestinian source” as saying that “Hamas is drunk with power as they watch this debate rage within Israeli society.” They see the internal arguments within Israel as a breaking point among Israelis. More than one Hamas official has argued that they shouldn’t release the captured soldier under any circumstances, even if Israel meets its demands. “Hamas is displaying the kidnapping as one of its organization’s greatest achievements.”
This animated propaganda film recently released by Hamas celebrating the kidnapping supports that observation.
But these are the government’s concerns, not those of the Shalit family. The Shalits say that they have waited long enough and have kept their suffering private long enough so as not to encourage their son’s captors. This 11-day march and the subsequent sit-in represent a turning point for them: after four years of diplomacy, they are taking their struggle public. Together with the approximately 500 supporters committed to accompanying them all the way to Jerusalem, they have put their lives and careers on hold in order to fully dedicate themselves to their goal.
Noam Shalit, speaking to the press as he set out, said they are determined that their son will not meet the sad fate of Israel’s previous famous prisoner of war, Ron Arad, who is believed to have died of illness while in captivity.
Our family, with the support of thousands of activists who are walking with us are saying: no more. We won’t wait anymore. We are bringing our protest by foot together with out supporters on this long journey until we arrive at the home of Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem — a journey from which we intend to return only with Gilad.