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A mass rally calling for the release of the three kidnapped IDF soldiers, Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser attracted thousands to Tel Aviv Rabin's Square Thursday evening.
Yarkon Subdistrict Chief Lt.-Cmdr. Haggai Dotan told The Jerusalem Post that tens of thousands of people were at the rally, and not 100,000 as organizers had claimed.
Tel Aviv's Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau opened the rally with a prayer for the soldiers' well-being, as he quoted Jeremiah 31: 17, "thy children shall come again to their own border."
Among those in attendance were several dozen youths enrolled in a pre-military course for leadership development. Wearing t-shirts that read "aharai" - an unofficial slogan of the IDF which means "follow me," the youths sat in the middle of the square, where they had set up three army stretchers - symbolizing the three kidnapped soldiers - in the shape of a triangle.
One of the rally's organizers, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan said, "We are coming to the square out of solidarity and a sense of duty. It is both own responsibility and the government's that we do no return to the situation of Ron Arad."
Dayan added that all efforts needed to be made to secure the release of the soldiers. "I have been in the army for many years and I always knew that there was an unwritten agreement between a soldier and his family, and the state and society, and when someone goes out to defend his home, we are all committed to bring him back," Dayan said.
Dayan, a former army deputy chief of staff, called on the government not to lift the air and blockade told The Jerusalem Post that "there is a grave danger that if Israel lifts the air and sea blockade of Lebanon, soldiers will be smuggled out of Lebanon." He called on the government not to lift the blockade. "Time is against us. Every day that passes they [Goldwasser and Regev] become more and more Ron Arad." Dayan added that Lebanon should not receive financial assistance until Goldwasser and Regev are released.
Miki Goldwassar, Ehud's mother, urged everyone who planned to join the rally not to come with protest signs and to avoid expressions of a political nature.
"We just want the boys to return home, we don't have any political agenda," said Goldwasser.
Itzik Orbach, a friend of Ron Arad from flight school, said "we [the friends of Ron Arad] will make sure the government doesn't fail in efforts to bring about release of the three soldiers, like it failed with Ron Arad." Orbach added that "if Ron were here, he would be speaking here at this rally, and he would have told you that all of Israel are beholden one to another. He would have told you that Israel would do everything to get its soldiers back, because we all grew up with the IDF ethic that you do not leave a comrade behind on the battlefield."
Orbach urged Gilad Shalit's father, Noam, to meet with Ron Arad's family, because they were the only people who could tell him how to tackle the situation and how to approach dealing with government.
In an emotional meeting, Gilad Shalit's army company arrived at the rally, straight from duty in Gaza, where they took part in IDF operations Thursday morning in the Sajaiyeh district of Gaza City.
One soldier, Tomer Shtarker, wearing dark sunglasses because he had been wounded in the operation and could not see well, said "We came to be with Gilad. It's hard, but we're optimistic. We feel that he is alive and we hope that he comes back."
One soldier said the feeling in the company was "very bad" since Gilad's abduction. "He's part of our company, he's part of us," he told The Jerusalem Post. The soldiers gathered around Gilad's father, handed out chocolate wafers and talked for few minutes, then sat in silence. After the rally the soldiers will go straight back to duty with their armor unit.
Noam Shalit told The Jerusalem Post that he was concerned that the government did not plan to negotiate for all three soldiers as part of one deal. The latest assessment among officials, he said, is that the government would hold separate negotiations with Hamas and Hizbullah. Shalit said that he hopes "Hizbullah and Hamas are not coordinated on this issue. They may have been coordinated on the issue of the wider war, but we do not believe they are on the soldiers."
Ran Cohen (Meretz), who was one of only two Knesset members at the rally, said he was not there in a political capacity but as a member of a Knesset lobby group that meets with the parents and political officials to work for the return of the soldiers.
"I'm not sure everything is being done in the way of negotiations," Cohen said. "I'm in favor of negotiations without any conditions, and I'm not sure everything is being done in this respect."
Cohen added, "I'm glad tens of thousands of people came out here," adding that "if this issue doesn't unite the nation, then this nation has no hope."