Noam and Aviva Shalit
Noam and Aviva Shalit. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah who have been evicted from their East Jerusalem homes will join the final stage of the 12-day march aimed at shoring up support for a prisoner exchange to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

The march is scheduled to reach Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem today.

Some 20,000 people are expected to descend upon the capital's Independence Park for a rally marking the end of the procession, and police have deployed 1,500 extra officers to secure the site.

The rally is scheduled to begin at 6:45 P.M., and the main entrance to Jerusalem will be closed to traffic from 3:30 P.M.

Nasser Ghawi, the Sheikh Jarrah resident behind the decision to join the march, said the surprise move is meant to express support for a prisoner swap and raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

"We are extending our hand in peace," said Ghawi. "We have lost hope that the Israeli establishment is able to make decisions, so we wish to talk directly to the Israeli public. Also, we are here to say that the prisoners are our sons and we favor their release. It is impossible to talk only about one side of the equation - the release of Shalit also means the release of Palestinian prisoners."

The Shalit family and march organizers said the participation of the Sheikh Jarrah residents could place pressure on Hamas to agree to a deal that would see Shalit freed.

The family plans to occupy the protest tent outside the premier's residence every day until dusk, and relatives said yesterday they would maintain their vigil until the government reaches a decision that will lead to Shalit's release.

This morning, before the march into the capital, the Shalits will be hosted in Abu Ghosh, an Arab village outside Jerusalem, where they will meet with the head of the regional council.

The family has asked participants to join them in Beit Shemesh in the afternoon, or during the segment of the procession heading from Motza to Jerusalem.

No developmentson swap deal

Speaking in response to reports that prisoner swap negotiations had resumed after National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and senior defense official Amos Gilad met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Noam Shalit said he was not aware of any new developments.

The elder Shalit said he has spoken with Hagai Hadas, the government mediator in talks for the captive soldier's release.

Noam Shalit said he is not aware of whether his son's case was discussed at Tuesday's White House meeting between Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama, and that he did not speak with the prime minister before he traveled to Washington.

Noam Shalit added, however, that he is in regular contact with Hadas.

The family is expected to meet with Netanyahu when he returns from the United States.