Gilad Schalit turns 24 in captivity

Thousands rally in Jerusalem on kidnapped soldier's birthday.

Schalit protest 311 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Schalit protest 311
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Thousands of people gathered near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Saturday night to mark St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit’s 24th birthday – and fifth birthday in captivity – and to pressure Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to forget the captive tank gunner when he goes to Washington next week.
“Again this year I did not buy a present, I did not bake a cake, and you will not blow out your candles,” Aviva Schalit said of her son in her remarks to the crowd.
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“We are doing everything to make your wish come true; but in truth it lies in the hands of the prime minister, who lives just across the street.”
Schalit also singled out Sara Netanyahu’s recent activism on behalf of the children of foreign workers.
“My heart also goes out to them. But allow me to remind you of a boy, now a young man, who has been imprisoned for more than four years in a hole in Gaza,” she said.
Sara Netanyahu responded to Aviva Schalit’s message on Saturday night, saying that she understood the pain of the Schalit family and that “my heart goes out to them, and to Gilad.”
“I know,” Sara Netanyahu said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, “that my husband, the prime minister, is making great efforts to return Gilad home safe and sound.”
The Netanyahus will meet with the Schalit family soon after their return from Washington on Friday, the statement said.
Those attending the rally included the 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry Prof. Ada Yonath; singers Yardena Arazi and Gidi Gov; the parents of St.-Sgt. (res.) Ehud Goldwasser, who was kidnapped and killed by Hizbullah in 2006; Nava Barak, ex-wife of Defense Minister Ehud Barak; and MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima).
The acting French ambassador read a statement from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said that “Gilad’s fifth birthday in captivity must also be his last.”
Sarkozy added that because Gilad has had no contact with his family and no visits from humanitarian organizations, he is a hostage and not a prisoner of war. Schalit is a dual Israeli and French citizen.
A minor disturbance broke out during Kadima MK Dalia Itzik’s speech, with boos and cries of “You should be ashamed!” “I remember the first time I met with you [the Schalit family],” Itzik said. “I told you he’d be back within two months – but I couldn’t imagine it would take four years.”
It was when Itzik said: “I am proud to be part of a family that doesn’t leave anyone behind” and insisted that the government was doing everything possible to bring Gilad back that the crowd started chanting, “Go home!” About 20 people who regularly volunteer at the Schalit protest tent helped dozens of policemen to maintain order.
The volunteers said they were fairly satisfied with the turnout, and added that there has been a lot more public support since the Schalits’ march in June from their home in Mitzpe Hila in Upper Galilee to the protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“It’s important to be here, because people do forget.
They’re raising children and going to work, and it’s not possible for the public to hold onto this cause so strongly for so many years,” said Liraz Biran, who came with her husband from Tel Mond, in honor of their oldest child, who is finishing his mandatory army service.
“It’s moving to be here. I came because it’s important to put pressure on the prime minister so that Gilad comes home,” said Romi Schwartz, 12, who arrived with her father and sister from Ashkelon. “We heard Aviva on the radio asking people to come, and we decided to do something.”
The stage was decorated with pictures of Gilad as a young boy. There was a birthday cake with 25 candles. Emblazoned on it was: “1,525 days in captivity.”
Symbolically, one of the chairs was left empty for Gilad.
The Schalits reiterated their pledge not to leave the tent until their son was home again.
On Saturday, the British government called for Schalit’s immediate release.
“The thoughts of many in Britain are with Gilad Schalit and his family as he spends his 24th birthday in captivity. His detention is unjustifiable and unacceptable,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.
“The British government demands his immediate and unconditional release.”
Jonny Paul in London and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.