The Israeli government declared Monday that it was committed to seeing Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit freed after nearly four years of captivity in the Gaza Strip, hours after the soldier's parents announced plans to intensify their campaign to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into securing their son's release.
Netanyahu's office said in response to the Shalit family's plans that the defense establishment has been instructed to "make every effort to return Gilad to his family and his nation as soon as possible."
The prime minister's office also said that the government has made "many efforts" over the last year and a half to seal a prisoner swap deal with Shalit's captors.
"In December 2009, Israel responded positively to the proposal made by German and Egyptian mediators for a deal to return Shalit," said Netanyahu's office in a statement. "Even though Israel has not yet received Hamas response to the proposal, the efforts to bring Gilad home are ongoing."
Shalit's family earlier Monday asked cabinet ministers to vote down a proposal to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip until their son was freed from Hamas captivity. The family made that call just after announcing plans to march from their home in the Galilee town of Mitzpe Hila to the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem to stage demonstrations until Gilad's release.
Sources privy to negotiations on the blockade told Haaretz that cabinet ministers had in the past agreed to tie the lifting of the blockade to Shalit's release, nearly four years after he was captured in a cross-border raid from Gaza. The soldier's family is now urging ministers to avoid international pressure and maintain that stance.
Noam Shalit, father of the captive soldier, called a press conference to announce plans to walk from the family to Jerusalem, where activists will set up a permanent protest camp outside Netanyahu's official residence.
The government has negotiated indirectly with Hamas for a prisoner swap deal to free the soldier in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails – but talks remain stalled, with each side blaming the other for the failure to strike a deal.
"For four years now two prime ministers, two ministers of defense and two chiefs of staff have failed to bring back a soldier who set out on a mission and never returned – there is no other way to describe it," Noam Shalit said.
"Today we are embarking on a public struggle," he said. "We will not wait an hour longer. As in the past, we call on the public to join the campaign to free Gilad."
Shlait said: "Over the past four years we have been told that giving in to Hamas' demands will lead to more abductions. For four years they have been scaring us with scenarios of terror and 'strategic threats' that would result from freeing hundreds of prisoners."
"Are the state and security force incapable of handling a few more freed militants? Senior security officers have told me the threats are baseless," Shalit said.
In October 2009 Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, released a video showing Shalit alive and apparently in good health - but has refused to allow doctors or aid workers to visit him. On Monday the International Committee of the Red Cross called on Hamas to grant it access to the soldier.
The Shalit campaign's march will set out from Mitzpeh Hila in the Galilee on June 27, aiming to arrive in Jerusalem on July 8, said the organizer of the event, Shimshon Liebman.
"The family is rolling up its sleeves after putting too much faith in the decision-makers," Shimshon said. "They now understand that there is no choice: We need to pay the price and bring back Gilad."
Campaigners say that polls show 67.1 per cent of the public in favor of freeing Gilad in exchange for 450 Palestinian prisoners.
On Tuesday, Noam Shalit plans to hold meetings with cabinet ministers and Knesset members to persuade them to work towards a swap deal with Hamas.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now