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ISRAEL: Captive soldier's family marches for his release

June 29, 2010 |  6:47 am

Four years after Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid, his family embarked Sunday on a campaign to heighten pressure on Israel's government to make a deal for the release their son. 

Noam and Aviva Shalit set off from their Galilee home of Mitzpeh Hila on a two-week march across the country. Joined by thousands, the family is walking to Jerusalem, where they intend to stay at the protest-tent, a permanent fixture on the sidewalk outside the prime minister's house. And they won't go home without Gilad, they say.

Widely respected as gentle-mannered people, the Shalits have given the government public breadth to secure their son's release but have run out of patience. Four years have been long enough to solve this one way or the other, said Noam Shalit, as the family home was locked indefinitely.

The move steps up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu to make a decision he had avoided in his first year in office, as did his predecessor Ehud Olmert for three. Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt and a German intelligence mediator, have made progress over the years but fall short of a breakthrough that will clinch a deal. Israel is drawing the line at top names on Hamas' list of prisoners.

Although he called for standing strong in the face of the campaign, Netanyahu had kind words for the family at the weekly Cabinet meeting. "Our hearts are with Shalit and his family," he said. But on Day Three of the march, Aviva Shalit said she doesn't want sympathy or empathy -- only her son back.

Decisions on Shalit will not be made in the street, said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a party member and ally of Netanyahu. Polls find the street supports the family and strongly favors cutting a deal with Hamas, also at the cost of releasing heavy-duty security prisoners. But some point out the public always supports a deal -- until the day after, when the public and press turn on the government for releasing dangerous prisoners.

The price is too high, say opponents of a deal. No price is too high, say proponents in a country where the draft is mandatory for most and the shoe could be on nearly anyone's foot. Many support the family's campaign. But some fear such public pressure will only encourage Hamas.

And Hamas is watching. A Gaza spokesman praised the campaign and called Israelis to pressure their government for a deal. From Damascus, Syria, came the message that the price will only increase with time. Aviva Shalit said Tuesday that the price wasn't set by the family but by the government's negotiations. If this is what they succeeded in reaching over four years, this is the price and it must be paid, she said on radio.

Netanyahu doesn't need additional massive public pressure. Between flotilla-fallout, flailing proximity talks and the ever-present Iranian nuclear issue, he has international concerns. His conservative government is pushing him to un-freeze settlement construction in September and a possible tweak of government is constantly murmured in the background.

Sometimes pressure is the only way to get things moving, as pressure that forced Israel to ease the Gaza blockade after the flotilla affair shows. It might also show that making the right decision for the wrong reasons and late in the day has a price too. Sooner or later, Netanyahu will have to decide.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: Day One of the two-week-long Free-Shalit march, in the northern town of Nahariyah. Credit: Youtube. 

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