Close to 3,000 people joined the Shalit family on the third day of its protest march to Jerusalem to agitate for the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit via a prisoner swap.
In the early morning hours the march set out from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin and concluded in nearby Kibbutz Yagur. The heat wave that has blanketed the country forced the procession to halt for numerous rest breaks along the march route, yet organizers were pleased that the weather did not prevent thousands from taking part.
Officials behind the public campaign for Shalit's release said Tuesday that the march presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the political capital necessary to proceed with the prisoner swap negotiations.
From the early morning hours, the blazing sun and sweltering heat left their mark on the participants of the march. Organizers sought relief by beginning the procession earlier than planned so that the assembled marchers could walk as great a distance as possible before conditions became unbearable.
Yet in the afternoon, as the march reached the grounds of the new Haifa Port complex, the weather claimed one casualty, who fainted on the spot.
Just a few meters away sat five women who have been inseparable - Deganit Abisadras, Riva Biran, Silvia Cohen, and two others who refused to divulge their names. All of them work as secretaries for the Haifa and Acre court system. For the past week, they have been on strike in protest of wage conditions. They decided to use the time to express their solidarity with the Shalit family.
The five women initially refused to comment on the record due to fears that their participation will be interpreted as a provocative step against their employer. They did not want to be perceived as exploiting the Shalit issue to gain leverage in their labor struggle.
"We are here to strengthen the Shalit family," said Biran, a department chief at the Acre Magistrate's Court. "We are here as mothers of soldiers, not as court employees."
"Our struggle pales in comparison to the campaign for Shalit," said Abisadras. "There is no comparison."
Biran, a resident of a Haifa suburb, joined the march at 7:00 A.M. and was joined by Abisadras and Cohen.
"My heart goes out to this family," said Abisadras. "The heat and the difficulty are nothing compared to our solidarity with the family. People are marching during the hottest time of the day. It doesn't matter to them how long it takes or where they are going. The important thing is to send a message that the time has come to free Shalit. The sense is that we, the people, are all that the family has left. All they have is our backing and support."
March organizers distributed bottles of water and fruit to the walkers at the numerous rest stops. Biran, the mother of a soldier doing compulsory service and two others in the reserves, attributed the high turnout to "an outpouring of emotions" from the public.
"I feel as if it is not just Shalit who is in captivity," she said, "but our entire nation is on an island in the Middle East."
Biran said it is incumbent upon all Israelis to join in the campaign for Shalit's freedom. "We sent him off to battle," she said. "We sent him to defend us. So it is our duty to do everything in our power to bring him back."
The Haifa municipality welcomed the procession with a giant puzzle depicting the Shalit family, with the pieces that comprise the image of Gilad Shalit noticeably absent. With hundreds of Haifans looking on, Mayor Yona Yahav gave the pieces to Shalit's father, Noam, so that he could pass it on to government representatives in Jerusalem.
"Thank you for the warm hospitality, for it is certainly warm," Noam Shalit said to the mayor. He then turned to the gathered locals and pleaded with them to join the march. "Walk with us to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem," he said.
While the missing puzzle pieces are symbolic, according to Biran, the march represents much more than mere symbolism.
"It is a reflection of the people's will," she said. "Throughout history public pressure has yielded results and influenced even the most obstinate leaders. Take for example Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan after the Yom Kippur War. Public pressure will move Netanyahu to bring Gilad Shalit home."
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