The family of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was joined by some 20,000 supporters on Friday, as they set out on the sixth day of a protest march from their home in the Galilee to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem.
Many of the activists attributed the extraordinary number of marchers to anger over Netanyahu's declaration the evening before that Israel was prepared to seal a deal with Hamas for Shalit's release, but "not at any price".
The protesters were set to arrive at Netanyahu's private home in Caesarea by evening, where they were to hold a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. The family said last week before setting out on the journey that once they reached Netanyahu's Jerusalem home, they would remain there until their son was released from four years of Palestinian captivity.
Israel Police were to close Highway 4 in the southbound direction on Friday to enable the march to move freely.
In a live address Thursday evening. Netanyhau told the Israeli public that Israel is willing to pay a heavy price in the negotiations with Hamas, but not any price.
Netanyahu said all Israelis wanted Shalit back safely but past experience showed that many Palestinians released had returned to carry out attacks on Israelis.
The prime minister added that he empathizes with the Shalit family, but "I see, as does every Israeli prime minister, the security of all of the state's citizens. Israel is willing to pay a heavy price for the release of Shalit, but not 'at any price.'"
"This is the truth, and I am saying it now," said Netanyahu, adding that Israel will continue to make every effort to bring Gilad home while maintaining the security of Israel's citizens.
Noam Shalit, father of the captive soldier, responded to Netanyahu's remarks by saying that Israel knows the price required to free Gilad - and also the price of abandoning him.
"Tens of thousands of citizens marching with us to Jerusalem are aware of the price that is required to free Gilad – but they also know the price of abandoning him," said Noam Shalit in response to Netanyahu's address.
"We are troubled that after four years in which Gilad has been rotting in Hamas' dungeons, all Netanyahu succeeds in doing is recycling Olmert's press conference," Shalit said, in a reference to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was previously negotiating with Hamas for Shalit's release.
Netanyahu "chose to paint for us doomsday scenarios, as though things haven't changed since then, as though there are no security services," Shalit said in a reference to Netanyahu's warning that releasing terrorists could wage future attacks on Israeli civilians.
Shalit added that past and present chiefs of staff support the deal and "are convinced the security forces will confront the threats we can expect and know that the risk faced by Gilad is an existential one."
Shalit also said that Netanyahu does not know how to leverage pressure on Hamas or to persist in maintaining the blockade on Gaza.
"Tens of thousands of citizens marching with us to Jerusalem continue on this difficult and exhausting path, despite knowing the price required to for Gilad's freedom," Shalit said. "They also know the price of abandoning Gilad. I turn to you, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, listen to the voices of the masses marching with us, and find the strength to make this difficult decision."
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