Noam Shalit
Noam Shalit leaving his home in Mitzpe Hila to begin a protest march to free his son, Gilad, on June 27, 2010. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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The parents of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit on Sunday expressed gratitude and satisfaction at the mass turnout of supporters who joined them on the first day of their march from their Galilee home to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem.

"It was a pleasant surprise that the public came out in such numbers," said Noam Shalit, whose son has been in Palestinian captivity since captured in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip in 2007. "It strengthens us and we bless that. I call on all who can to join us until we arrive in Jerusalem, from where, with God's help, we will return home with Gilad."

"Today, 10,000 people showed that everyone wants Gilad to come home," said Shalit's mother, Aviva. "We did not set the price to pay [for Gilad's release] – the former government did. We, above all, want as few terrorist freed as possible, but if there is no alternative, and if after four years the government still has not managed to complete the deal, then the only option is to pay the price that has been asked."

The Shalits added that they had given Netanyahu every chance to follow through with the deal, which would see their son released in exchange for thousands of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel. "We will not wait for a fifth and sixth year," they said,

The family declared last week that they would set up a protest tent outside of Netanyahu's residence, and would refuse to leave until a deal had been sealed for their son's release.

Netanyahu said Sunday that he had invited the Shalit family to meet with him upon their arrival in Jerusalem, in 12 days.

"Our hearts are with the Shalit family," Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting. "I urge the international community to work to bring about the release of the abducted soldier."

An estimated 10,000 people took part in the first day of the march, including Likud MK Michael Eitan, which began exactly four years and two days following Gilad Shalit's capture.

"Gilad waited four years and he is still waiting," the soldier's father, Noam, said after leaving the family home in Mitzpeh Hila. "Waiting for those who sent him, waiting for his commanding officers, waiting for the prime ministers, waiting for the defense ministers, but they don't listen."

Shalit said his family and supporters are undertaking the march in the wake of a chain of failures on Israel's part over the last four years for which his son Gilad is the only one paying a heavy price.

"No one has volunteered to share the price with Gilad," Noam Shalit said."The discussion about flesh and blood has turned from one about values and ethos to convenience-store negotiations. The discussion about flesh and blood has turned from one about values and ethos to convenience-store negotiations."

"I call on the public across Israel, anyone who thinks that four years is enough, to join our march and use his legs to express support and protest," said Shalit.

The government, meanwhile, intends to stick to its guns and not give in to public pressure in the negotiations with Hamas over the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The working assumption is that a firm stance will force Hamas to soften its position and accept the terms offered by Netanyahu through his special representative, Hagai Hadas.

Two main issues remain in dispute in the negotiations: Israel refuses to release several dozen "heavy" prisoners, those who led Hamas terror networks in the West Bank or were responsible for major terror attacks during the second intifada on behalf of other organizations.

Israel also refuses to release many prisoners to their homes in the West Bank, fearing that they will establish a terrorist network there. It wants them either sent abroad or kept in prison for now, with shortened terms.

Netanyahu, relying on data showing that most of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners released in previous exchanges returned to terrorism, is against releasing the prisoners who committed the worse offenses and also opposes the return of released prisoners to the West Bank.

The negotiations are being conducted quietly, through indirect channels, but there are no signs that a breakthrough is imminent.

From Israel's perspective the document that was drafted by the German mediator and submitted to both parties 18 months ago is the framework for any deal.

The military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, led by Ahmed Ja'abari, rejected the mediator's proposal, arguing that Israel had reneged on previous agreements. Israel argued that Hamas ratcheted up its demands due to its inability to come to a consensus within the organization, which led it to adopt Ja'abari's hardline position.