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ISRAEL: Cautious optimism on Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit

February 8, 2009 |  6:33 pm

Shalit1Israel Defense Force Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit was captured and taken to Gaza in June 2006 during an attack by Hamas that killed two other soldiers. Hamas says Shalit shall be released only in return for Palestinian prisoners, among them high-profile detainees whom Israel is loathe to release.

Israel has made prisoner exchange deals before, bending its own policy against freeing those 'with blood on their hands' for soldiers, even dead soldiers, but not with Hamas. Recent reports said Israel is considering a much more flexible definition of prisoner categories to facilitate Shalit's release.

Many were critical of the government's decision to enter a truce agreement in June 2008 without securing Shalit's return. Israel apparently took calm where it could get it while continuing to consider the terms for Shalit's release. Hamas had remained adamant that the soldier would be released only as part of an exchange.

Now Israel says the military operation in Gaza that followed the collapse of last year's cease-fire has created "leverages" for advancing an agreement. In other words, Hamas wants the crossings opened; Israel wants Shalit.

Shalit2Reports of progress Sunday caused a loud buzz in Israel; this was shushed by Prime Minister Ehud  Olmert as "exaggerated, damaging and premature." He and other leaders urged discretion on the sensitive issue.

During the 960 days of Shalit's captivity, dozens of events have been organized by volunteers and family to keep him in the public awareness, including rallies, cycling events, hikes and a 10K run.

Others sit in one place.

And that place is up the block from the prime minister's residence, where people have been sitting for five months, flipping laminated numbers on a hand-made calendar counting Shalit's days in captivity.

In early September, Yael Roth-Barkai felt she should do something. Together with her sister Ruthi Barkai, she composed an e-mail seeking volunteers for a vigil and sent it only to a handful of friends. Four hours later, they had 140 volunteers — many total strangers.

Shalit3When they filled one week's worth of shifts, they drove to Jerusalem and planted a folding picnic table and two plastic chairs on the pavement by Olmert's house. Today, they have nearly 400 volunteers — enough to maintain a constant presence for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their two other sisters  have joined the effort.

People of all ages come together from different corners of Israeli society to give a few hours a month at the sidewalk stand that now boasts a small pavilion, donated like other equipment. Passers-by stop to chat and sign the petition. School classes are held there, study and prayer-groups too. The e-mail experiment has a life of its own now; the organizers visit periodically.

They were just the match that lighted the fire the other 400 volunteers felt too, says Yael. Shalit had tugged on her conscience and consciousness as a mother and citizen until she concluded that attending one-off demonstrations wasn't enough. Decision-makers need constant, persistent pressure.

Sometimes, it just takes one.

Shalit4In 1974, after the Yom Kippur war, Motti Ashkenazi launched a one-man protest outside the Prime  Minister's Office. Gradually, citizens and even soldiers straight from the front lines joined him and his demand of ministerial responsibility for bad decisions during the war; later that year, the government resigned. "He was our model," Yael says.

With a ginger optimism, she follows reports. "I hope we don't have to sit there much longer."

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Pictures of the campaign-for-Shalit site in Jerusalem: the pavilion; the petition; the desk covered with children's drawings of hands for Shalit's return ('Gilad Shalit, come back') and the laminated numbers. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman.

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