Gilad Schalit 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Due to unexpected progress in talks to bring about the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, Israel's main negotiator on the matter, Ofer Dekel, will be extending his stay in Cairo, a source close to the negotiations told a French news agency on Thursday.
According to the source, there is a "sign of progress," and currently both sides are expediting the talks in order to solve the issue before April 3, when the new Israeli government is set to be sworn in.
Meanwhile, Channel 2 reported Wednesday that Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu said he would not prevent a deal by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's outgoing government to release the soldier from his Hamas captors in Gaza.
Netanyahu's spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the Channel 2 report, which came as Dekel was in Cairo attempting to hammer out a prisoner swap for Schalit with the help of Egyptian mediators.
Hamas has asked for the release of 1,400 Hamas prisoners in exchange for Schalit, 450 of which are said to have been involved in deadly terrorist attacks against Israelis.
In a last-ditch effort to pressure the prime minister to make such a deal before he leaves office, Schalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, set up a protest tent outside Olmert's Jerusalem residence on Sunday. They intend to remain there until Olmert's tenure ends.
In the past four days they have been joined by thousands of supporters from around the country - and the world - who have stood in line, many in Purim costumes, to shake hands with the captured soldier's parents.
Among the more high-profile visitors was Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), who is a member of the security cabinet. He told the family that he hoped the cabinet would be convened to approve a deal while Olmert was still in office.
"I have a feeling that if a deal is placed before the cabinet, it will pass. It's my belief that Olmert wants to finish this while he is still in office," said Cohen.
A government source told The Jerusalem Post that efforts were ongoing to secure Gilad's release.
Cohen was not the only politician to sound a note of hope in the tent.
Former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik (Kadima) told Noam and Aviva that that there is still a chance their son could be released before Olmert leaves office.
"I firmly believe that there is a chance this could happen, and by the same token I a deeply believe that is the state's obligation to return Gilad," she said.
"I am convinced that the prime minister is doing everything possible to return Gilad," she said.
Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called on Olmert to quickly summon his ministers to make a decision on a prisoner swap deal, even if he needed to do so on Saturday night.
"We have reached zero hour, there is no time for discussions or bargaining," Ben-Eliezer said after meeting the Schalits in the protest tent. "I am aware of the moral argument about the price and other ethical considerations, but unfortunately, such questions have not yet been raised around a table of ministers."
"If we need to make a decision, I have no doubt that the majority will be in favor [of a deal]," he said.
"I believe that the [negotiation] process has been exhausted," Ben-Eliezer continued. "The government, which I am a member of, must not clear the table without Gilad returning home."
Following the meeting, Noam Schalit said Ben-Eliezer's words spoke for themselves. "It's still not too late," he said. "It's really time to decide. We don't have another week or month."
Schalit also appealed to Hamas and called on the group to end the issue and free Gilad. "I suggest that Hamas hurry and close the deal with the existing conditions, because they will not get a better deal than the one we are hearing of," he insisted.
"I don't know who will be in the next government and who will be the next prime minister, and Hamas needs to understand that the window of opportunity is closing," the captured soldier's father continued.
He added, "I have heard ministers say that the issue is in the prime minister's hands and he is supposed to decide and bring it for a cabinet vote. Unfortunately, he is dealing with the issue, but he is not bringing results or a breakthrough."
Outside the tent, the Desert Queen program, which has supported the Schalit campaign throughout, posted a large calendar of Gilad's time in captivity. It notes the significant dates of his 990 days in captivity, including birthdays and holidays, as well as the dates in which his family received a letter and a cassette from Gilad.
In addition the calendar holds a large photograph of Gilad as well as the phrase "Where are you child?" written in red letters.
Throughout the day, hundreds of people placed hand-written notes for Gilad on the calendar.
"I asked that he return home," said Yakir Zadok, nine, who along with his sister Shirel, eight, wrote notes to Gilad.
Their mother Leah brought them to Jerusalem from Elad just to visit the tent.
"I wanted them to understand what it means that a soldier was kidnapped," said Leah, who added that she was among those who supported a prisoner swap for Schalit's release. "There is no other option."
Among those who agreed with her was Nissim Yazdi, who lost his only son Avi, 24, in a terrorist attack on January 12, 2002. Yazdi wore a small gold tag with the engraved profile of his son on a chain around his neck and carried his photograph, which he asked Noam to sign on the back.
Avi Yazdi had been married for only seven months when he was shot by a terrorist who burst into a bar mitzva hall where he had been on guard duty.
Nissim's sister Sarah Ovadia, who also came to the tent on Wednesday, recalled how she had heard about the attack late at night on the news and understood immediately that Avi could be in danger.
She called Nissim, who immediately went to search for Avi at the hall and in the hospital.
Hours later, she said, he called to tell her, "My son is gone."
Nissim added that he did not want the Schalit family to experience that same kind of pain.