Ministers Eli Yishai and Yaakov Margi of Shas and Michael Eitan of Likud announced on Sunday that they intend to join the protest march by the family of the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Police estimated that 10,000 marchers participated in the first day of the procession, which began on Sunday at the Shalit family home in Mitzpeh Hila, in the north of the country and is scheduled to end across from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem.
As reported in Haaretz on Sunday, Netanyahu demanded that the cabinet evince a "firm stance" against the anticipated public pressure generated by the march, in the belief that a tougher stance in the face of Israeli public opinion will compel Hamas to moderate its demands in the prisoner swap negotiations.
The 12-day march, which coincides with the four-year anniversary of Shalit's abduction by Palestinian gunmen, is not expected to persuade the government to offer a more generous proposal to Hamas, which is demanding the release of hundreds of convicted terrorists in exchange for Shalit.
Nonetheless, the protest march did dent the government's unified stance following the announcements by Yishai, Margi, and Eitan. Yishai, the interior minister and Shas chairman, called on fellow Shas MKs and ministers "to support the family with their feet."
Eitan said, "With every issue there are arguments for and against. There is one issue on which everyone is united, and that is the desire to see Gilad Shalit return home. In my view, the march for Gilad Shalit's freedom seeks to express the humane and nationalist emotion that exists in each and every one of us - to strengthen the soldier and his family and to remind all of us to act without hesitation in order to bring about his release," Eitan said.
"While the government needs to use its head, it also needs to act with a heart and to show solidarity with the soldier, the family, and the values of unity that serve as the foundation of Israeli society," Eitan continued.
The Shalit family and officials involved in the public campaign for Gilad's release expressed satisfaction with Sunday's turnout. "The public has come en masse and we welcome this," Gilad's father, Noam Shalit, said. "This strengthens us and I call upon those who can continue to march with us to do so and for others to join us until we reach Jerusalem. From there we hope to return, with the help of God, with Gilad."
About a dozen marchers gathered in front of the Shalit home Sunday morning, wearing white and carrying yellow ribbons, waiting for Noam and Aviva Shalit as well as their eldest son, Yoel. Before the march began Netanyahu phoned Noam Shalit and invited the family to meet with him in his Jerusalem residence at the conclusion of the walk, in 11 days. "Our hearts are with the Shalit family," Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, shortly after the phone call. "I call on the international community to stand beside Israel and to echo our unequivocal, just demand for our soldier to be released."
Friends of Noam Shalit from the campaign for Gilad's release said he told Netanyahu that he expects him to follow through with deeds, not just words.
"Suddenly a man wakes in the morning and feels that the nation is with him and he starts to walk," Shalit said before the marchers set off, paraphrasing a well-known Hebrew song. He was standing in the square in front of the Mitzpeh Hila community office. He told the assembled crowd that the state had mishandled his son's case.
"Gilad has waited four years and he is still waiting," Noam Shalit said. "He is waiting for those who sent him, he is waiting for his commanders, he is waiting for the prime ministers, he is waiting for the defense ministers, but they do not hear him," Noam Shalit said.
"The discussion about flesh and blood has turned from a discussion about values and ethics into market haggling," he continued. "We will not wait any longer, we will not wait in Mitzpeh Hila. We are Gilad's family, friends and loyal activists, and tens of thousands of supporters are going forth on a long march toward the capital, Jerusalem, toward the home of Prime Minister Netanyahu. We will return home only with Gilad," he said.
Police initially estimated that 2,500 marchers had turned up, but as the procession reached the nearby community of Kibbutz Kabri they revised their estimates to between 10,000 and 15,000. Among the marchers were the parents of soldiers who were abducted and killed by militants: Ya'akov Avitan, whose son Adi Avitan was abducted by Hezbollah in October 2000; Miki Goldwasser, the mother of Ehud Goldwasser, who was taken by Hezbollah one month after Gilad Shalit was abducted; and Zvi Regev, whose son Eldad Regev was captured in the same raid.
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