"Don't abandon my son," Noam Schalit pleads with Olmert.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
After an emotional roller coaster ride, in which their hopes for their son's release were raised and then dashed, the parents of captive soldier Gilad Schalit remained on Tuesday night in the protest tent they pitched 10 days ago outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem home.
Hanging above the tent was a sign saying "Save me" and another one that said "Gilad has been in captivity for 996 days."
The family had returned there after a private conversation with Olmert about Gilad, which left them with a sense that the prime minister planned to continue efforts to secure his release, only to hear Olmert tell the nation in a public address that Israel would not pay any price to free him from Hamas.
"We are asking that instead of coming up with reasons as to why he cannot act, he should put all his efforts in the time that he has left to pressure Hamas to make a deal," said Schalit's father, Noam.
As the events of the past 24 hours quieted down, Noam, Gilad's mother, Aviva, and his older brother Yoel, 25, sat inside the tent wearing coats to ward off the cold and speaking with a few friends.
Initially, their hopes were raised when negotiators Ofer Dekel and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin remained in Cairo on Monday to press for a deal after many ministers had said they would pay a high price to see Schalit return home.
"Yesterday at 10:30 at night, I was so excited. I had a feeling that finally [a deal] was happening," said Elana Levi, a neighbor of the Schalit family in Mitzpe Hila, in the Galilee. Then, around 11 p.m., Noam Schalit received a phone call from the Prime Minister's Office and was told that negotiators had returned without a deal.
Rather than give up, the next morning, after a briefing from Dekel about the negotiations in Cairo, Noam Schalit sent a short letter to Olmert in which he begged the prime minister, as a father, to do everything possible for Gilad.
"This letter is an attempt to formulate a prayer by which my son will be saved," Noam wrote. "I turn to you as one father to another: Don't abandon my son."
In the letter Schalit told Olmert, "I am turning to you one last time with a call from the heart of my family waiting for its son, imprisoned in the cellars of Hamas... You bear full responsibility for fulfilling the covenant between the IDF and the state that a soldier will not be abandoned in captivity, to a family that sent its son to the army with the knowledge of this commitment," read the letter. "We urge you... despite the heavy price required, [to] bring Gilad back before the end of your term."
The Schalits spent most of Tuesday afternoon in front of the Prime Minister's Office, along with hundreds of supporters, waiting for the results of the cabinet meeting, in which Olmert briefed the ministers.
Most of the protesters wore white T-shirts that said, "Gilad is alive." They blew whistles and banged on drums to chants about Schalit, their voices carrying all the way to the door of the Prime Minister's Office.
They yelled out -"Don't say stop! Gilad is still alive!" "Save Gilad!" and "Olmert, you are obligated to fulfill your promise!"
They also held signs that read, "Are we trying to return a live soldier, or to buy one like with Ron Arad?" Other signs said, "For the sake of your conscience, return Gilad."
Some teens who said they would soon enter the army held up a sign that read, "Are we the next in line?"
"I was informed that Hamas withdrew from some of the understandings that had been achieved and increased its demands," Noam Schalit told reporters as he waited for news.
"The prime minister and Hamas have failed here," he continued, adding that he believed a deal for his son was still attainable.
"I would recommend that Hamas hurry up and cut a deal now, before a new government is formed. It won't get a better deal with the new government. It has many things to lose if it does not conclude this deal now," he said.
Given that Israel has linked the full reopening of the Gaza border crossings to the release of Schalit, his father said that Gazans also had a lot to lose if Hamas did not reach a deal with Israel now.
"We continue to demand from Olmert, who has handled this issue, to personally resolve it and to bring Gilad back before he steps down. We do not want another 1,000 days of Gilad in prison," he said.
"As long as this government exists and is in business, we are here," he added.
Once the cabinet finished its meeting, the Schalits walked into the building for a personal meeting with Olmert.
When they emerged, Noam said, "The prime minister will continue [negotiations], and is not giving up. The talks will continue until the very last moment, and we hope that there will be a slight increase in effort - in the hopes that, despite the brief amount of time left in this current government, we will be able to secure a [breakthrough] so that we'll be able to see Gilad back home."
He ducked a question about the emotions of the moment, saying, "The feelings, the hopes, the disappointments are not relevant. After 1,000 days, what is important is action."
Schalit and his family plan to return to their protest tent on Wednesday, but the campaign has yet to decide whether to remain there until the end of Olmert's time in office, as originally planned.
Late at night, as she sat in the tent, Levi said, "It's been a roller coaster of unimaginable emotions. The expectations have been so high. One moment you are happy and the next you are sad."
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