Marking her captive son's 23rd birthday with friends and family at Mitzpe Hila in the Galilee on Thursday evening, Aviva Schalit asked Gilad to forgive her "for failing to protect you and prevent the immense suffering you are experiencing. "We're sorry we haven't managed to bring you home despite our great efforts," she said, vowing to continue doing "whatever it takes" to win the release of her son, who was captured on the Gaza border on June 25, 2006. After thanking members of the Campaign to Free Gilad Schalit, Schalit turned to residents of Gaza, saying she understood their suffering under the Hamas regime. "For more than three years now, the simple people are also paying a heavy price for this adventure of their leadership - a price paid in demolished homes, a blockade, poverty and hunger. These people cannot protest to express their frustration," she said. While she refrained from remarking on recent media reports indicating an imminent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, Gilad's mother did mention the families of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. "The many families of prisoners who could have been home now are also waiting and looking forward to the day you return," Schalit said. Also on Thursday evening, thousands of people attended a prayer rally for Gilad at the Western Wall, and dozens of activists protested outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. The protesters held signs slamming Defense Minister Ehud Barak, such as "Barak buried a living soldier." The banners also criticized IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, with one banner reading "Ashkenazi - free [Schalit] or resign." Hamas officials, meanwhile, confirmed on Thursday that Germany has replaced Egypt as the prime mediator in efforts to release Schalit. They said that Hamas was still demanding the release of about 1,000 Palestinians in return for him. But the officials refused to say whether the Germans have succeeded in achieving a breakthrough. "The Germans are now in the picture," a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip told The Jerusalem Post. He said that at the request of the German mediators, Hamas leaders were not talking too much in public about the secret negotiations. The legislator noted that the Germans had in the past been successful in achieving prisoner exchange agreements between Israel and Hizbullah. Another Hamas representative in the Gaza Strip said that contrary to media reports, the two sides were still far from striking a deal. "The only new development is the fact that the Germans have replaced the Egyptians," he said. "Hamas's demands haven't changed and the ball remains in the Israeli court." According to reports in some Arab media outlets, Hamas has accepted Israel's demand that many of the Palestinian security prisoners slated for release in return for Schalit would be deported to a number of Arab and European countries. The Hamas officials would neither confirm nor deny these reports. They also refused to comment on a report that claimed that Ahmed Ja'bari, commander of the movement's armed wing, is in Cairo for talks on a possible prisoner swap. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Lebanon, said that a German security delegation consisting of three to five people was conducting intensive talks with Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians and Egyptians in a bid to reach a deal. Hamdan said that Hamas has full confidence in the German mediation efforts. He added that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was expected to discuss the issue of Schalit during his current visit to Germany. Hamdan said that the two sides were very close to reaching a deal in the final days of former prime minister Ehud Olmert's government. But, he said, Olmert backtracked at the last minute for unknown reasons. Hamdan claimed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had also sought to foil a deal between Israel and Hamas because he was concerned that such a move would boost the Islamic movement's standing.