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(photo credit: Courtesy photo by Shlomo Shoham of the Technion)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday that while securing captive soldier Gilad Schalit's release was a national priority, he felt personally responsible for bringing him home safely.
"Bringing Gilad home is a national mission, and we are carrying out both covert and overt means to bring Schalit home," said Ashkenazi.
He added that as the chief of staff, he saw himself as personally responsible for all soldiers, and for making sure Gilad Schalit returned home safely.
Ashkenazi's statements came during a speech to hundreds of high school students at the 30th Zionist Youth Conference in Ashdod, and hours after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened a Security Cabinet meeting to discuss recent progress on talks to secure Schalit's release.
The statement also follows tension earlier this week between Ashkenazi and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, after it was leaked to the press that Arad had questioned Ashkenazi's handling of the Schalit issue.
Ashkenazi also spoke of the importance of the IDF in Israeli society, and the need to fight the rising phenomenon of draft-dodging, saying he hoped to see the day when every citizen of Israel would help carry the national burden, if not through IDF service then through national service or volunteering.
"The situation in which not everyone serves must be changed. The way to change this is mandatory national service or civil service for all those who do not enlist in the IDF."
He added, "It is my goal that we will have a society in which everyone, religious and secular, serves. There is no reason that not everyone will contribute to the country."
When asked how the IDF and schools can quell draft-dodging, Ashkenazi said they would work together on programs to deal with the issue and called on the students gathered to serve as personal examples to their peers.
"The reason we can sit here today [in Ashdod] and not have Kassams falling on us is because of those soldiers who answered the call to service. If we don't carry this burden in every generation, then we won't be here. Every generation has known this and I'm sure this generation does as well," Ashkenazi said.
Ashkenazi also spoke of the security situation facing the Golan Heights, saying that the front had been largely quiet ever since the Yom Kippur War, but that the IDF was keeping a close watch on developments with Hizbullah across the border. Ashkenazi said the army knows the Shi'ite terror organization has been rearming and rebuilding under the "blind eye" of Lebanese authorities, but warned that if they decide to go to war with Israel again "they will find the IDF ready for them."