In Show of Unity, 60,000 Rally for Release of Soldiers

More than 60,000 people thronged to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last night to call for the release of abducted IDF soldiers Gilad Shalit, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.Rabbi Yisrael Lau and MK Ran Cohen stood side by side in a rare show of unity, religious stood with secular, settlers with kibbutzniks. Protesters calling for a state inquiry commission joined those who object to it in a bid for the soldiers' release.

It was not a protest rally; it was a reminder to the government not to forget those it used as the main cause for the war. Ostensibly it was a rally of solidarity with the POWs and their families. But in its subtext, it castigated the government?s reneging on yet another contract with the public.

"Nobody connects the abducted soldiers and the war declared in their name anymore," said Shai Shenkman, Eldad Regev's comrade. "In the war trauma the kidnapping slipped from consciousness, like Ron Arad. That precedent scares us."

The rally evoked a public response that the protest against the war failed to do. The public did not come to protest but to express a yearning for the country they wanted Israel to be. The older participants said they missed the past, the youngsters spoke of fear for the future.

"Something in the ethos has been eroded," said Uzi Dayan, head of an organization acting to release POWs and one of the rally?s organizers.

Shlomi Gvili, a friend of Eldad Regev's, said: "Since Madhat Yosef was abandoned at Josephs Tomb, the state has undergone an ongoing moral deterioration that must be stopped."

"If I'm called to the flag again I'll go, but I'm afraid these precedents will have a bad effect on the younger generation."

Idan Zak, a youngster approaching his army service, agrees. "It?s frightening. They always told me the army does everything to get its POWs back. That is no longer true," he said.

Despite the desire to remove all political affiliations from the rally, the youngsters reflected a crisis of faith between themselves and the state and army, which seemed to pose a bigger threat than any demand for the resignation of the prime minister, defense minister or chief of staff.And so, although the rally was blatantly apolitical, it was political in the deeper sense of the word. Perhaps Noam Shalit, Gilad Shalit?s father, was right when he said, "I don't want to make it sound like a threat, but I want this rally to reflect the feeling that we have divisions behind us. The government will get the message."

The political presence was almost nonexistent. Only five Knesset members - all from the opposition - bothered to come to a fully consensual rally. The others probably felt the hidden threat in the demand to release the POWs.MK Yitzhak Aharonovitz of Yisrael Beitenu said he wanted the rally to provide leverage for the demand to establish an commission of inquiry. However, it is doubtful this event would channel the public's protest.