'Gilad Schalit is begging for his life'

Captive soldier's father addresses TA rally marking third anniversary since son's capture on Gaza border.

schalit rally 3 years 248 (photo credit: )
schalit rally 3 years 248
(photo credit: )
Amid escalating rumors that captive tank gunner Gilad Schalit is about to be transferred to Egypt, his father, Noam, speaking Thursday at a Tel Aviv rally marking three years since his son's capture, said Gilad was begging for his life. "We are standing here across from the office of the commanders who sent our son on his mission to the Gaza border, a mission from which he has not returned until today. We are standing here this evening to give Gilad a voice," Noam said. To the hundreds who joined him opposite the Kirya military headquarters, under spotlights which lit up the night sky, Noam said it was doubtful his son could see the sun or smile as he endured his 1,095th day in captivity. "He asks only one thing from you - his freedom. As we have become accustomed to saying, Gilad has already paid the price for the failures for which he bore no responsibility," Noam said. Thursday's rally was the latest of dozens of events the family and their supporters have held during the past three years in hopes of pressuring the government into making a deal with Hamas that would secure Gilad's release. As Noam spoke, unconfirmed reports circulated in the media, as they have all week, that Gilad was about to be transferred to Egypt, a move that had been suggested as a preliminary step toward his release in past third-party negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Israel has been willing to meet most of Hamas's demands for the release of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for Gilad, but has balked at freeing some of those charged with killing Israelis in terrorist attacks. On Wednesday, there were also media reports that Egypt had received a sign of life from Gilad. Noam told The Jerusalem Post that he had heard nothing, and Israeli officials denied reports of significant progress in the affair. Gilad's brother, Yoel, told the Post he was trying not to pay attention to the rumors and would only believe them when he heard something official. So far, he said, the family has not heard anything. When Gilad was first captured, Yoel thought it would be a matter of days until his release, then week, then months, and slowly time has stretched into years. Looking out at the crowd at the rally he said he would want his brother to know how many supporters he had. At the rally, Noam asked those who sat on folding chairs on a lawn to close their eyes and imagine his son in captivity. Earlier in the day, speaking to Army Radio, he had said, "My wish today, on the 25th of June, 2009, [is for] every person in the state to close your eyes for three minutes. Wait until those minutes pass, and during that time, try to think about what my son Gilad has gone through: a young man who is waiting with bated breath - not just three minutes, and not just three hours, and not even just three days - but is waiting in darkness and despair, mentally and physically tortured, to regain his freedom which was taken from him three years ago." Yoel Schalit spoke on the radio as if he was speaking to his brother, who is now 22. "Gilad, my dear brother, after three years in captivity I thought you might like to know a little bit about the things that have happened here," he began. He told him how Michael Phelps won seven gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and how Israel came back with a bronze medal in sailing. "Thousands of discharged soldiers left to travel all over the world; you could've traveled with them," Yoel said. "Today in Israel there are 200,000 university students, you could've been one of them. There are plenty of other things that happened and are still happening, and I'm waiting to tell you about them." Yoel then pleaded with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "Mr. Prime Minister, I request from you, save my brother," he said. "Don't abandon him to an unknown fate. Don't wait for tomorrow, help Gilad today. Every day he is in captivity is a risk to his life." In a letter she sent out to the media prior to the rally, Gilad's mother, Aviva, who was at the rally but did not speak, wrote, "For three years I've been trying to bring all the pain, unease and frustration to the eyes and hearts of the public. Quite simply, I carry my tears with me, choking me so I can't even cry. "I know, people say that we're 'noble' in our apparent silence... and some are asking, 'Why don't you raise your voice and shout?'... I'll tell you honestly, we never tried to be different people from who we are, and we never meant to seem noble." "Is this why nothing is happening? Does our trust hinder Gilad's release? Will a country's government speed up its decision making only under pressure from the family?... Will it not, unprompted, show its own commitment to the boy it sent on its mission? My pain is immense, but I won't describe here the nights or days that linger with us for all these years." In her letter she called for her son's release, as did the rest of the family, a call which was picked up by other speakers who addressed the crowd; Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin Shahak and Karnit Goldwasser, the widow of IDF reservist Ehud Goldwasser, whose body was returned to Israel in a prisoner swap with Hizbullah in 2007. A moderator read a letter from Tami Arad, the wife of IAF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared in 1988 after he had been held captive in Lebanon for more than two years. In it she recalled how more than 20 year ago, after a series of meeting with parliamentarians and ministers she had met Binyamin Netanyahu, who was then a young MK. She said that they had sought his support for a prisoner swap, as they had with everyone else. He had responded by telling her of his brother Yoni, who had been killed trying to bring captives home in Uganda in 1976. "We left the meeting with tears in our eyes," recalled Tami in her letter. Everything should be done, she said, to keep Gilad from suffering Ron's fate and falling into the abyss. The price for returning soldiers was never easy. "Mr. Prime Minister, today you are no longer a young MK, but a prime minister in your second term. You specifically as a member of a bereaved family can take a brave step for life and to return Gilad home, not just for Aviva and Noam, but also for all of us, so we can be proud of the principles by which we live in this nation and for which we sacrifice so many young lives." Hezi Shai, who was freed in a prisoner swap in 1985, read from a letter the Schalit family received from Gilad last year at this time. It was the last time they heard from him. Shai was in captivity for three years. He spoke as if he were Gilad, and described how he sat lonely, every day fighting for his life and his dignity. He spoke of how he woke up in the morning hopeful and ended the day disappointed. "I sit and think have I failed by staying alive." Although rally organizers invited all 120 Knesset members and ministers, only MK Ophir Paz-Pines arrived. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband repeated the UK's call to Hamas for Schalit's immediate, unconditional and safe release. In a statement, Miliband said the UK shared "the Schalit family's dismay at Hamas's refusal to allow the Red Cross access to Gilad." The British minister also mentioned the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and repeated the UK's call on Israel "to reduce further the current restrictions on the Gaza crossings, to allow in aid, reconstruction materials and trade goods, and to permit the legitimate flow of people through the crossings." Meanwhile, the city of New Orleans declared Gilad an honorary citizen. The move was initiated by Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Israel, who petitioned the city council to issue a proclamation declaring Schalit an honorary citizen as a measure of support to him and his family. "Gilad's story is a symbol of the human element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and must not be minimized as the global community strives to achieve peace in the Middle East," the city council proclamation announcing the decision stated. The activists said they had created a new umbrella group working for the release of the young man, called "Gilad's army." The time for waiting has past, it is time for action, the moderator said. In Brussels, hundreds attended a rally to show solidarity with the Schalit family. After a human chain was formed around the building, hundreds of balloons were released. "The fact that many non-Jewish Belgian citizens participated in the rally emphasizes the world's support for Gilad and his family," said Meir Vanchotzker, World Bnei Akiva's emissary to Belgium. "Furthermore, it is crucial to organize pro-Israeli rallies next to the European Union [headquarters], since most of the members are not always Israel's biggest fans," Vanchotzker said. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report