Protesters block Gaza crossings in demonstration for captive soldier; on immanent deal
By TOVAH LAZAROFF, TORI CHEIFETZ
The Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry vigorously denied media reports on Tuesday that captive soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit would be transferred from Gaza to Egypt in a matter of hours.
Asked about the report during a visit to Rome, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, "I have no such information. As of this time, no such report has reached me."
The Schalit family said it had not heard about a deal, either.
They spoke in response to a report by the Palestinian Ma'an news agency, which stated that Schalit's transfer to Egypt was immanent, possibly even occurring in a matter of hours.
The report, quoting unnamed Egyptian sources, cited an unscheduled visit to Tel Aviv by Egyptian general Muhammad Ibrahim, saying he had made the trip to discuss prisoner swap arrangements.
In past Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas for Schalit's release, moving him to Egypt was one of the initial steps that Hamas would take as part of a swap.
"We are obligated to return Gilad alive and well, and we are making every effort to do so through different venues," said Netanyahu.
He cautioned that he did not believe it would help matters at the moment to speak about specific terms or conditions for Schalit's release.
According to Palestinian reports earlier Tuesday, Israel had conveyed a message to Hamas through former US president Jimmy Carter, expressing Jerusalem's willingness to release most of the prisoners Hamas was demanding in exchange for Schalit.
"Israel is awaiting the letter of reply from Gilad Schalit to the letter transferred to him by his parents, Noam and Aviva, in order to verify that he is still alive," Palestinian sources said. "Afterward, Israel will agree to advance the negotiations for Schalit's release and end the affair."
Israel has said in the past that it would free hundreds of Hamas prisoners, but has balked at releasing several senior Hamas members serving lengthy terms for attacks that killed and wounded Israelis.
Rumors that a deal for Schalit was close were also prompted by the release Tuesday of Palestinian parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik, the most senior of dozens of Hamas politicians in custody.
Officials insisted that Dweik had been freed only because his three-year sentence had been nearing its end.
The Schalit rumors came only two days after Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, and one day after Schalit's father, Noam, went to the Knesset and talked with politicians, including Netanyahu and top ministers.
Adding to the charged atmosphere, Egyptian forces were seen operating near the Gaza-Egypt border. But officials said they were carrying out a routine exercise.
This Thursday, Schalit's family, friends and supporters will mark the third anniversary of his kidnapping by Hamas as he patrolled the Gaza border. Since then, the family has received a cassette and two letters from Schalit, but have not heard from him since this time last year.
In an attempt to pressure Hamas to allow the Red Cross to visit the captive 22-year-old soldier, something it has not been allowed to do since his abduction, protesters on Tuesday tried to block the three crossings into Gaza - Erez, Karni and Kerem Shalom.
Since Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel has allowed only humanitarian aid to enter the area. It has also linked passage of non-humanitarian goods into Gaza with the release of Schalit.
The army evacuated the pro-Schalit protesters from the Erez crossing around 1 p.m. after receiving reports that Hamas was aiming rockets at the area.
Some 70 protesters, who had been there since the early morning, left quietly. Some joined the demonstration at the Kerem Shalom crossing, close to where Schalit was kidnapped on June 25, 2006.
"It was pretty quiet," reported protest organizer Arele Sadan, speaking about the evacuation. "At first we thought it was just an exercise of the police and the army, but then we realized that we were in real danger." They were among hundreds of activists from the Movement to Free Gilad Schalit, the Kibbutz Movement and the Im Tirzu student organization who streamed down to the Gaza border.
Noam Schalit visited Kerem Shalom during the morning and thanked protesters for coming out, saying he did not take their participation for granted.
In the afternoon, at the Erez crossing, he said, "They've held him for three years without any human rights. I think the people... are sick and tired of this situation."
All day, activists clad in T-shirts that read "I've enlisted for Gilad Schalit" converged on the crossings. Protesters said they had been able to keep 100 trucks laden with goods from entering Gaza through Kerem Shalom. At the Karni crossing, only six trucks showed up to try and pass through the blockade.
"The truckers were warned by the police, so hardly anyone showed up," said Ella Hefez, a main organizer from the Movement to Free Gilad Schalit.
"That doesn't mean we didn't prove our point," she continued. "Our purpose was that today no trucks or diplomats would go into Gaza, and we achieved that goal."
The Office of the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories could not comment on how many trucks entered Gaza on Tuesday.
At Kerem Shalom, truck drivers could be seen wearing Gilad Schalit T-shirts and outwardly proclaiming their support for the protest.
"I knew about the protests before, but I decided to bring my truckers anyway," said trucking company boss Shlomo Hallel.
Hallel told The Jerusalem Post that even with the current situation, he was prepared to stay at the crossing for at least a month in protest.
Meanwhile, on the Gaza side of the Erez crossing, more than 100 Palestinians gathered to demand the release of the roughly 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Demonstrators hoisted Palestinian flags and banners calling for an end to the Gaza blockade.
"We call for the capture of more soldiers to exchange them for our prisoners," one sign read.
"They must all be released," said Fadwa Shehada, 55, whose son Imad is serving a 30-year prison sentence in Israel. "We are calling on everybody to release our beloved people."
Shehada would not say why her son was imprisoned.
Speaking to the Post at the Erez Crossing, Sadan said he had witnessed interactions between protesters on the two sides.
According to Sadan, Israeli protesters let through a Palestinian woman and her son who needed medical treatment at an Israeli hospital, adding that they had known about her in advance.
"This is the difference between us and you," he told the woman. "Your child needs help, and we're allowing you to leave so that he can get to the hospital and get help. But we need to know what's going on with Gilad. We need to send help if he needs help, and we don't even know that."
On Thursday evening, a large protest is scheduled to take place by the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, demanding that the government do more to release Schalit.
The Schalit family plans to speak, as does former chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former captive Hezi Shai, and Karnit Goldwasser. Goldwasser's husband Ehud was killed by Hizbullah along the northern border in July 2006, along with his fellow reservist Eldad Regev. Hizbullah held their bodies for two years and returned them through a prisoner swap in July 2008.
Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.
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