Schalit's unit: Your freedom is our freedom

On day of army release, Schalit's comrades urge gov't to 'act as if there is no time left.'

schalit platoon 224 88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
schalit platoon 224 88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
A larger-than-life photograph of captive soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit that graced Kikar Rabin on Tuesday night was as close as his father Noam would come to seeing his son on the day Gilad would have been released from the army. Unable to touch or speak to his son, 21, who has been held by Hamas since June 2006, Noam Schalit instead turned to a small group of supporters who stood in the square along with seven members of Gilad's unit who had shed their army uniforms on Tuesday afternoon. "For more than two years we have not spoken with him [Gilad]. We are disconnected from him, to our sorrow," said Noam. "We are standing here today and thinking of Gilad, how he would have acted today on the day of his release from the army, what he would have said, what he would have wanted to do." In the midst of this sorrow, he was "comforted" by the actions of the seven soldiers who served with Gilad and who, immediately upon leaving the Tel Hashomer induction center in the afternoon, marched first to meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then to the square to demand Gilad's release. They pledged not to rest until he was home. "It shows the warm support for Gilad - that even on the first day of their release they came here instead of racing to the sea or to buy tickets abroad. They have not forgotten their friendship with him, even on the day that should have been one of celebration for them," said Noam. One of the seven young men, Yossi Magen, told The Jerusalem Post that it had been frustrating these past two years to be banned from publicly advocating for their friend as the result of their service in the army. Wearing a white T-shirt with Gilad's face on it, he said the events on Tuesday afternoon and evening had been a welcome relief from that silence. Magen said there had not been a day since the kidnapping that he did not think of Gilad. "I wonder how he is feeling, does he have food to eat and something to drink," said Magen. The idea to appeal personally to Barak and the public as they did on Tuesday came to the seven a few months ago. Another one of the seven, Guy Eliasaf, told the Post that they had turned to Barak because as a former soldier who himself had lost friends in battle, he was most likely to understand their plight. Barak promised them that "Israel will do all it can to bring about the release of Gilad Schalit. As a military commander, I see myself as having a moral obligation to do everything possible to bring Schalit home." Meanwhile Tuesday, diplomatic officials denied reports that the release of jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti was now being discussed, with one senior official saying it was all "media speculation." Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin told the Knesset on Tuesday that he was also opposed to releasing Barghouti, a move he said would undermine the authority of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The diplomatic official said that over the last few days it had become apparent that Hamas was not interested in closing a deal on Schalit, and that they now seemed to believe that holding him gave them leverage over Israel that it would lose were the soldier returned. But standing at the rally, Schalit's comrades in arms urged the government and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take whatever steps were necessary to bring Schalit home. "Stop and think of Gilad for a moment or two," said Eliasaf. "He is there alone, afraid and disappointed." Eliasaf asked Olmert and the government to release him tomorrow, not a day later. "Your freedom is our freedom. Technically we left the army, but we will not feel as if we were released until you come home," he said, adding, "We have to return him alive, before it is too late." In his mind were the words that missing airman Ron Arad wrote to his family from captivity in Lebanon before he disappeared in May 1988. "Act as if there is no time left," said Eliasaf. Those words were also printed in large letters under Gilad's photograph. Also on Tuesday, Miki Leibowich, one of the heads of the campaign to release reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were killed on the northern border on July 12, 2006, but whose bodies were returned to Israel only last week, sent out a letter to its supporters. He said he felt the nation had tarried too long in returning the bodies of the two men and pledged that he and those from the Goldwasser and Regev campaign would now work on behalf of Schalit. On Monday, Goldwasser's mother Miki told Ofer Dekel - the government negotiator for the deal that released her son - as he visited her in Nahariya that she too planned to work on Gilad's behalf. "We won't rest until Gilad is home," she said.