Family members and friends of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, along with journalists and photographers, gathered on Monday in the scorching dunes near the western Negev community of Kerem Shalom to celebrate a birthday party of barely suppressed tears. "We came here to remind the Israeli government and the IDF that you don't abandon a soldier on the battlefield, that you don't leave a fighter in captivity," Gilad's father Noam said at the ceremony, held near the outpost on the Gaza-Israel border from which Gilad was abducted in the early morning hours of June 25.
Praying for Gilad - over 1,000 messages of support from around the world
Gilad turned 20 on Monday, and the family, including parents Noam and Aviva and siblings Yoel and Hadas, marked the event by visiting the location of his kidnapping for the very first time.
"We won't rest and we won't stop until you're back with us," vowed Noam Shalit, standing under a shaded canopy attached to the cement blocks of an IDF guard tower. He called on "the Palestinian people to end the inhuman suffering of hundreds of thousands of people" by releasing Gilad and to "turn this border we're standing on into a border of peace and rebuilding."
Speaking to the Hamas leadership, he implored them to treat Gilad well during his captivity. "Islam, your religion, commands to behave honorably with captives," he said. "This generosity includes giving their families a sign of life."
The commander of the Barak Armored Brigade, Col. Moshe Sheetrit, promised that the brigade in which Gilad served would continue to work tirelessly to enable his return. "The forces of this brigade are fighting for you," he said. "Your comrades demanded not to leave the front without you. The Barak Brigade has a debt to settle with those who took you."
Following the ceremony, Gilad's family and friends released over 2,000 balloons into the air over the Gaza Strip, some with messages attached calling for his release.