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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Reuters
Noam Shalit poses with the President of the Jewish Community of Rome Riccardo Pacifici during a demonstration in Rome on June 24, 2010. Photo by Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he spoke with Noam Shalit, father of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, and invited him and his family for a meeting in Jerusalem.

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

Noam Shalit on Sunday led his family and supporters on a protest march to free his son who has been held by Gaza militants since 2006. The march, which is planned to end at the Prime Minister's official residence, in Jerusalem, is scheduled to take 12 days.

Police estimated 10,000 people were taking part, including Likud MK Michael Eitan.

"Gilad waited four years and he is still waiting," said Noam Shalit after leaving his house in Mitzpe Hila at the start of the march. "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.

Friday marked the fourth anniversary of Gilad Shalit's capture in a Hamas cross-border raid into Israel.

"The discussion about flesh and blood has turned from one about values and ethos to convenience-store negotiations," said Shalit, who added that the family will no longer wait at their Mitzpe Hila home.

"The discussion about flesh and blood has turned from one about values and ethos to convenience-store negotiations," said Shalit.

"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, adding that he and his supporters are leaving today for a long journey whose end is unknown.

"But we will return to our Galilee home only with Gilad, our son," he said.

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.

Noam Shalit said Saturday night that he was not optimistic. He called on the public to "come and support us with your feet."

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Saturday, in response to the planned march, "I am opposed to the release of Gilad Shalit at any price. However, I respect the right of Shalit's parents to do what they are doing. If it was my son I would do the same."

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.

Hamas continues to blame Israel for the failure of the negotiations so far and has not commented on the march to Jerusalem.

Addressing criticism of Hamas for refusing to allow Red Cross representatives to visit Shalit, Hamas Gaza spokesman Ayman Taha said Saturday: "We can't allow the Red Cross to visit Shalit because he is not in prison, and therefore revealing his location would be very dangerous."