After 12 days of the largest protest march in Israel, organizers of the campaign to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit said that while they were satisfied with the public response it was dwarfed by the knowledge that Gilad is not yet home.
The organizers admitted they had worried that the turnout for the march would be smaller, and said they are convinced that the response proved that the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports their cause.
A turning point for the campaign was the speech last week in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he supported a prisoner exchange deal but not at any price. Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, accused Netanyahu of presenting nightmare scenarios to the public. The next day, 17,000 people joined the march in what its organizers called an unequivocal response to the prime minister.
The number of marchers changed daily. Only Gilad's parents and brother, Noam, Aviva and Yoel Shalit, respectively, walked the entire 220-kilometer route, from the family's home in the north to Jerusalem. Organizers said that 15,000 people marched on the first day, 17,000 marchers entered Tel Aviv and 25,000 people joined the last day of the march, in Jerusalem, yesterday. Only 9,000 people attended the concert marking the end of the march, due to space restrictions. Rough estimates spoke of more than 200,000 people who attended various parts of the march, including the rallies and concerts associated.
At last night's closing rally Aviva Shalit implored Netanyahu: "Don't abandon my son, act courageously to free him," adding, "After four years there are no more excuses. 1,474 days of hardship and pain my son has endured in Hamas captivity. The time has come to say 'Stop! Enough!'"
She said that since Gilad was abducted in 2006 Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including dozens of Hamas members. "We have waited for four years, a small family from Mitzpe Hila, Noam, Yoel, Hadas and I. During this time, the government of Israel has let more and more bargaining chips go. In all those years, no alternative was found except releasing prisoners and terrorists in exchange for Gilad."
Carmi Gilon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, was among the marchers yesterday. "We stretched the legal system to the maximum to retain the bargaining chips and we failed," Gilon said at the rally. "We reoccupied Gaza, we imposed a closure and we negotiated. Sometimes it seems we forgot that somewhere out there one of our soldiers is being buried alive ... Experience shows us that the first price tag is the lowest and the price rises the longer negotiations are drawn out. Don't let them deceive us - today's calm has nothing to do with the arch-murderers being in prison, there are younger and more talented people outside."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai joined the march yesterday. He said Israel did not do enough to secure Gilad Shalit's.
"I believe we need to take every step to bring home Gilad Shalit, but not at any price," Yishai said. "The fact that Gilad is not here says that we have not done enough."
Yishai told Israel Radio yesterday he was willing to meet "anywhere in the world with any official, including people from Hamas," to secure the release of Israeli captives.
The Shalits were also joined yesterday by Yuval Arad, daughter of Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured by Lebanese militants in 1986.
Yoel Marshak, head of the Kibbutz Movement's Task Force and one of the main organizers of the march, told Haaretz it was the largest protest march ever in Israel.
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