'Gilad Is Still Alive'

The people who gathered yesterday at Gilad Shalit's home in Mitzpe Hila to mark his 22nd birthday came simply to show their love and support for the kidnapped soldier's family. "Gilad is in captivity because the bad guys got him," explains 4-year-old Segev Mashav of Kibbutz Snir, then turns to his mother: "I'm waiting for the birthday party to start."

Keren Mashav, 40, smiles forgivingly at her son and tries to explain to him "it's not really a birthday party." She says she understand's the Shalits' pain and has come with her own family to express solidarity.

At 6 P.M., the small community was already humming with people. Local teenagers manned the entrance gate, welcoming the hundreds who arrived from all over the country and distributing torches and white shirts, stickers and signs reading "Gilad is still alive."

The Shalits' 16-year-old neighbor, Eitan Chelouche, was among those helping out: "I remember him as a good basketball player," he says of Shalit, "I feel a need to help."

The assembled crowd marched from the gate to the Shalits' house, where they waited in the yard for the birthday ceremony to begin. Decorating the stage was a poster of Gilad with the superimposed slogan, "What more will you ask of us, native land?"

Gilad's father, Noam Shalit, told Haaretz: "We're still waiting. It's heart-warming to see the crowd that came, but that won't bring Gilad back. We see that people care; that it touches people throughout the country, and we hope there will not be a third year of captivity, even though we have no horizon to hang onto."

The usually reticent Aviva Shalit, Gilad's mother, delivered the rally's opening speech: "Today is Gilad's birthday. I did not bake a cake, did not blow up balloons to hang in his room, did not arrange a floral crown, did not buy a gift, and didn't even deliberate over what Gilad would like for his birthday, and when I would surprise him with the gift and birthday greeting. But I wrote a birthday wish in which I asked for just one thing - Gilad, be strong as you know how to be and do not break. Think all the time that we are with you and for you, and we will get you out of there. Dad and Mom and the family, the many friends and many citizens throughout the country are enlisting on your behalf. You do not deserve a third year in this terrible captivity.