Crowd marks Schalit birthday in J'lem

Prayers at Western Wall mark soldier's 4th birthday in captivity; PM mum on rumors of impending deal.

gilad schalit 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
gilad schalit 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a reddish dusk settled Wednesday night on the ancient stones of the Western Wall, a modest crowd of a few hundred prepared to commemorate Gilad Schalit's 23rd birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. Joining Noam and Aviva Schalit at the site to mark Gilad's fourth birthday in captivity were some secular Israelis who braved the traffic and the parking - a muscle-bound young man in a tank top with a rasta hairdo, a young woman in a low-cut red dress and long, beaded hair - and some organized groups of young IDF volunteers from the Diaspora. However, the vast majority of the small crowd that came down to the Western Wall plaza on the 1,144th day since Schalit's capture to pray for his release were decidedly haredi or religious Zionist - though many were "regulars" who would have been there anyway. Some of the more secular chose to step back from the Wall and stand in the adjacent area outside the courtyard, while Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and the more religious crowd read Psalms. The youth movement Habonim Dror, a driving force behind the popular campaign to free Schalit, organized a global prayer for the IDF soldier's safe return. Habonim joined forces with Lau to organize the ceremony at the Kotel, and released a statement that read, "We are calling on all Jews - one people, one heart - to pray on behalf of our brother Gilad's well-being and for his safe return." Lau penned a special prayer for the service, which begins, "May he who blessed our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, bless and guard and save Gilad, son of Aviva and Noam Schalit." The prayer also beseeches God to "redeem [Schalit] from his captivity and return him in the immediate future." Capt. Idan Hamo, 26, the present commander of Schalit's tank company, brought his soldiers down to the courtyard to take part in the prayers, by which they were visibly moved. "It means a lot to me and my soldiers that such an event is being held here," said Hamo. Asked if he thought prayers would help release Schalit from captivity, Hamo paused, looked up to the heavens, and said, "Prayers are always answered, especially here." Reports of Schalit's imminent release continued to appear in both Israeli and Arab media. Channel 2 reported Wednesday night that according to Arab press reports, Hamas, Israel and Egypt were finalizing a deal for the soldier's release. According to the report, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had agreed to free 325 prisoners, some with "blood on their hands." The Prime Minister's Office would not comment on these reports or provide any details about the status of the talks on Schalit. Earlier in the day, Netanyahu's office refuted reports that National Security Adviser Uzi Arad had been in Cairo earlier this week discussing a possible Schalit deal with the Egyptians. Herb Keinon and Elan Miller contributed to this report.