Noam and Aviva Shalit, parents of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, are gathering strength for their most difficult and perhaps ultimate campaign. On Sunday the family will begin a march to Jerusalem - embarking on a quest that will end only with Gilad's return, they say.
Friday marks four years since Shalit has been held in Hamas captivity.
"This time it's different," says Noam Shalit, Gilad's father. "We've said we would not allow another year to pass without Gilad, and that is what we intend to do this time. We won't go home without Gilad."
It is not clear how long the Shalit family and the activists campaigning for his release will have to camp in protest opposite the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem until he decides to bring Gilad home. It is clear that the battle will be hard and long, and that public opinion will play a key role in the outcome.
Four years ago Friday the Shalit family received the first official word from the Israel Defense Forces: "Your son is missing and believed to be held in the Gaza Strip." Four years of anguish and dread have passed, with very few moments of hope or optimism. Two wars have erupted since then - one in the north and the other in Gaza- as the family continues to wait, day after day and week after week.
Not much has changed in Mitzpeh Hila, where the Shalit family lives. But this weekend, as they prepare for the march, a feeling of potential change prevails. The anticipation in the air is enhanced by the overwhelming media presence.
All of the bread-and-breakfasts in the area are at capacity - filled mainly by journalists. Everyone wants to cover the family as they set out on their march, which thousands are expected to join along the way.
Tie a yellow ribbon
On Thursday morning several children, mostly girls, gathered in Mitzpeh Hila where they began tying yellow ribbons in every possible corner, on fences and bushes near the Shalit house and on the entrance gate.
"Most Israelis will be wearing a yellow ribbon over the next few days," says one campaign activist.
Shahar Cohen and Shahar Siton, two 13-year-old girls from Mitzpeh Hila sit at the entrance to the community's administrative offices, cutting yellow ribbons. They were nine years old when Gilad Shalit was abducted and did not really understand what was going on. Now things are different. They realize the importance of joining the struggle to bring him home. "This will be the last time we cut ribbons," one of them says.
When asked why, they answer, "Because this time he's coming back and we won't need to cut any more ribbons."
Ariel Vaknin and Nitzan Romano, both 17, created posters for the march declaring "Gilad, we're waiting for you at home."
"The whole country is mobilizing for Gilad," says Vaknin. "For teenagers his abduction has a different meaning. How can a state abandon a soldier it sent on a mission? As long as Gilad isn't coming back, more and more people will dodge the draft. We need to restore young peoples' belief in the state."
Shimshon Liebman, who heads the campaign for Shalit's release, says the activists are encouraged by the public support and display of solidarity.
He admits that for the past four years the family and activists had been naive. Perhaps this quest too is naive, he says. But he is still sure of one thing: "This time the family is making a turnabout, after having lost its confidence in the government it had trusted all those years. Now it's demanding that the prime minister and defense minister pay the price [for the deal to free Gilad Shalit], after all the levers and options have been exhausted," he says.
"The prime minister cannot ignore the masses marching for Gilad, or sitting with the family in the protest tent. He will not be able to return to his agenda without bringing Gilad home after four years," Liebman says.
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