Activists working for the release of Gilad Shalit said they were encouraged by the demonstration of public support this weekend, as their 12-day march to Jerusalem approached the halfway mark. They said that at least 17,000 people joined the march on Friday in a show of solidarity with the family of the soldier.
The marchers are calling for the conclusion of an agreement between Israel and Hamas under which Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would be released in exchange for the release of Shalit, who is being held by the organization in the Gaza Strip.
Friday's turnout was the largest since the march began one week ago. On Sunday, the Shalits will walk from Shefayim to Herzliya and then to Kibbutz Glil Yam.
On Monday, the procession is scheduled to arrive in Tel Aviv, where the organizers say they expect thousands of people to join the march. After reaching Rabin Square in the late morning the participants will continue on to Kerem Shalom, the Gaza Strip border crossing where Shalit was abducted in 2006. A concert will be held in the evening in Shalit's honor at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, three kilometers from the border.
The Shalits will return to Tel Aviv overnight before beginning the third leg and final leg of the march, ending in Jerusalem, Tuesday morning.
The chairman of the campaign to free Shalit, Shimshon Liebman, told Haaretz on Saturday that his organization was encouraged by the large turnout, particularly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on Thursday against obtaining the soldier's release "at any price."
"We're encouraged, and we'll continue to march," Liebman said. "We keep telling the prime minister, 'You can seize this opportunity to use the power these masses of people are giving you to make the decision to bring Gilad Shalit home," he said.
In related news, the Detainees' Support Committee in Gaza said this weekend that it will hold a march on Sunday in support of maintaining a hard line in the prisoner exchange negotiations. Marchers will walk from Gaza City to the home of senior Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar.
In a statement the committee said its march was a call to the Hamas leadership to stand firm in its demand that a prisoner swap include hundreds of Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, including high-ranking members of militant groups and terrorists convicted of killing large numbers of Israelis.
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