Gilad Schalit 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Protests and demonstrations urging expediency in negotiations for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit continued to gain momentum on Saturday, as a group of reservists launched a petition-signing campaign to help push the matter.
The soldiers are demanding from the government that a decision to bring Schalit back to Israel be made this week. They are expected to present the petition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
On Friday, demonstrators surrounding the protest tent in Jerusalem where the Schalit family has been staying since the beginning of last week blocked the access road to the Prime Minister's Residence.
The demonstrators yelled slogans such as "Olmert, you made a promise- now keep it!" and "We want him home, we want him now." Many carried banners and some used whistles, hoping the sounds would reach the prime minister's living room.
Earlier Friday, Ofer Dekel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's negotiator in the talks to release Schalit, returned to Israel for consultations in Jerusalem.
Dekel is expected to return to Cairo shortly to resume the intensive negotiations for Schalit's release. Jerusalem continues to be opaque on the issues still unresolved in the talks as well as on what already has been agreed.
The cabinet is not yet scheduled to meet to approve a deal and Dekel is expected to set out to Egypt yet again and this may indicate the a deal is still not close to being hammered out.
In Israel however, the desire to free Schalit from Hamas captivity is so high that half of the members of the cabinet have told The Jerusalem Post they will not oppose a deal to trade security prisoners, even though Dekel has yet to bring the final agreement for approval.
Speaking at a Tel Aviv event on Thursday night, Olmert said "My heart goes out to the Schalit family, to Noam, Aviva, the grandfather Tzvi and to the whole family... They are sitting next to my house and have been hosted in my home. I know how important it is to them that their suffering is ended. I pray to the Almighty to be the one that will bring him home quickly in the coming days."
"Anything that could be done to save his life is the right thing to do," Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) told the Post on Thursday.
She spoke on the fifth day of an intensive campaign launched by Schalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, who on Sunday pitched a tent outside the prime minister's residence in a last-ditch effort to sway Olmert to finalize a prisoner exchange before he leaves office.
On Friday, Gilad Schalit's 992nd day in captivity, supporters intend to hold a rally near the tent, in the capital's Talbiyeh neighborhood. Gilad's older brother, Yoel, 25, plans to join his parents at the rally.
Hamas has demanded the release of 1,400 prisoners, including 450 who were involved in terrorist attacks that killed Israelis, but Israel has balked, reportedly offering to free half of the 450.
Early Friday Ha'aretz reported that Israel had agreed to release all 450 prisoners.
According to the report, which cites Palestinian sources in Cairo, the deal had yet to be completed because of Israel's requirement that a portion of the detainees be deported and not returned to the Palestinian Authority.
The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the report.
Meanwhile, a French news agency reported "signs of progress" in Cairo, adding that both sides were expediting the Egyptian-mediated talks, although Hamas denied this.
But political sources told the Post a deal was unlikely to be reached soon, despite the attention garnered in the latest phase of the campaign to free the soldier.
Masked Hamas members told Channel 2, "We are willing to release Schalit," but cautioned that Israel had to meet their terms. They refused to give details regarding his condition.
They said they would be willing to work out a deal with the next government as well, but warned, "We will not wait forever."
By Thursday, the Schalit protest had grown to such an extent that a second tent was pitched next to the original, and protesters had moved from the corner to the street.
"Gilad is alive!" they shouted at passing cars. A few waved flags with his picture.
MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) visited Noam Schalit in the tent on Thursday.
"I call on the government to free whomever they need to," Kara said.
But Schalit told the Post he had yet to hear of any progress toward freeing his son.
The Almagor Terror Victims Association has opposed the release of terrorists involved in past attacks, saying many of them will attack again. According to Almagor, 180 Israelis have been killed by terrorists released in past prisoner exchanges.
Still, 10 cabinet ministers said they would likely approve such a deal: Kadima's Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit, Gideon Ezra, Ya'acov Edri and Ze'ev Boim; Labor's Tamir, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon; and the Pensioners Party's Rafi Eitan and Ya'acov Ben-Yizri.
Shas said in the name of its four ministers that it would not oppose a swap. A spokesman for Labor's Ghaleb Majadle hedged a bit and said that the minister had always supported the return of soldiers.
Technically, only the 14-member security cabinet must approve a deal. But last July's swap for the bodies of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev was brought before the full cabinet.
The members of the security cabinet have been more hesitant to voice their opinions; only three have clearly stated their support: Sheetrit, Eitan and Mofaz.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon and ministers Avi Dichter and Isaac Herzog said they could not comment without knowing the terms of a proposed deal.
Amitai Ziv and a number of other friends of missing IAF navigator Ron Arad also came to visit Noam Schalit on Thursday.
Arad disappeared in May 1988 after being held captive in Lebanon since his plane was shot down in October 1986.
His friends said that, as with Schalit, the government had haggled over a price without concluding a deal.
Ziv, who met Arad in flight school, said he would be spending his 23rd Pessah sitting at a Seder and thinking of his absent friend.
Ziv said that in the initial stages of Arad's capture, he and other supporters of the missing airman had placed too much faith in the government and had not understood the extent to which they should advocate for his release.
He said he hoped that the government had learned its lesson from the Arad case and would conclude a deal for Schalit, he said.
Another of Arad's friends said they had paid a price for having failed to make a deal.
"We do not have the same faith [in the country] that we had before," he said, adding that he had continued to serve in the IDF and that his children had as well.
Young adults who have stopped by the protest tent have said the government's failure to return Schalit has affected their attitude toward the IDF.
On Thursday, a number of teens sent a letter to the prime minister in which they wrote, "We find it more difficult to enlist knowing that Gilad Schalit has not been returned to his parents... As future soldiers, we would like to be certain that if one of us is taken captive, the government will do whatever it takes to release us."
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