Tens of thousands expected as march for Gilad Shalit approaches Jerusalem
Organizers estimate more than 120,000 people have participated thus far in the march, which set out last weekend from the abducted soldier's home in the north.
Tens of thousands are expected to join the rally outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem Thursday evening to mark the end of the 12-day march calling for a prisoner-exchange deal to free Gilad Shalit.
Organizers estimate more than 120,000 people have participated thus far in the march, which set out last weekend from the abducted soldier's home in the northern community of Mitzpeh Hila and yesterday afternoon reached Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.
Organizers said they are in constant contact with police and Jerusalem city hall over the procession's route, as well as details surrounding the 24-hour protest tent they plan to erect in the capital. They said they had received the full cooperation of police, who agreed to block main traffic arteries in the city and offer any other logistical support they can.
Ariella Rosen, the activist supervising the procession's march through Jerusalem, told Haaretz that "the goal of the tent is to be a nuisance to the prime minister, to keep the issue of Gilad's return on his agenda."
"We're happy that over the next few days the turnout will be even greater, and that along with the family members we'll persuade the prime minister to make the decision to bring Gilad home," she said.
A concert for Gilad
The Shalit family yesterday visited the site where Palestinian militants abducted the soldier in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Conductor Zubin Mehta led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in an early evening concert at Kfar Aza, a kibbutz three kilometers from the Gaza border, in Shalit's honor.
Earlier in the day, Shalit's father Noam told demonstrators the march had reached "central Tel Aviv after a long and grueling journey, with tens of thousands of civilians behind us walking in extreme heat during the peak of summer to encourage us not to give up until we have reached our goal."
"Words, explanations, press conferences and excuses for why this is difficult or dangerous don't count," he continued. Addressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he said, "Only results count. I call on you again and again, look at this mighty wave of civilians that follows us. That is the will of the people."
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai praised the marchers' efforts. "The journey for Gilad, which long ago turned into mass procession, shows the differences between us and our enemies," he said. "Anyone who compares one soldier to a thousand terrorists exposes the contempt he holds for his own people."
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau told the assembled crowd in Rabin Square that he would be willing to trade places with Shalit to comfort the soldier's family. "The heart of an entire people goes out to this noble but tormented family," he said.
Thousands of protesters spent the early part of the morning outside Barak's home in north Tel Aviv. At the rally, activist spokesman Shimshon Liebman called out, "Can you see us? Can you hear us? We can't hear your answer. As defense minister you are responsible for Gilad Shalit. You can do it. Say the words, and do it."