Tens of thousands rally in TA to demand release of kidnapped soldiers

Hizbullah and Hamas may have common goals, but they are not coordinated as regards the three Israeli soldiers they hold between them, Noam Shalit - whose son Gilad was kidnapped on the Israel-Gaza border and taken into Gaza in June - told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday night. Therefore, if Israel can reach an agreement, via intermediaries, for the release of Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, it is unlikely to be a single package deal linking all three soldiers, Shalit said. The latest assessment among officials, said Shalit, is that the government would hold separate negotiations for Gilad on the one hand, and Regev and Goldwasser on the other. Shalit said he was told that Hizbullah and Hamas were not working together on the kidnapping issue. "They may have been coordinated on the issue of the wider war, but we do not believe they are on the soldiers," Shalit said. A mass rally calling for the release of the three kidnapped IDF soldiers attracted tens of thousands to Tel Aviv Rabin's Square Thursday evening. Rally organizers announced that 100,000 people were in attendance, but the ranking police officer at the event, Yarkon Subdistrict Chief Lt.-Cmdr. Haggai Dotan, told the Post there were tens of thousands and was not sure where the organizers got their figure from. The rally was held under the banner "And thy children shall return to their own border," taken from Jeremiah (31:17). Organizers said they would make sure the government made good on its wartime promise to return the kidnapped soldiers to Israel. One of the rally's organizers, General (res.) Uzi Dayan, said, "We are coming to the square out of solidarity and a sense of duty. It is both our own responsibility and the government's that we do not return to the situation of Ron Arad." Dayan, a former army deputy chief of staff, called on the government not to lift the air and naval blockade of Lebanon until the kidnapped soldiers are released. "There is a grave danger that if Israel lifts the air and sea blockade, the soldiers will be smuggled out of Lebanon." "Time is against us. Every day that passes, they [Goldwasser and Regev] become more and more Ron Arad," he told the Post. Dayan called on donor countries meeting in Sweden to withhold reconstruction aid to Lebanon until Goldwasser and Regev are released. Dayan added that all efforts had to be made to secure the release of the soldiers. "I have been in the army for many years, and I always knew there was an unwritten agreement between a soldier and his family, and the state and society; when someone goes out to defend his home, we are all committed to bringing him back," Dayan said. Miki Goldwasser, Ehud's mother, urged everyone who planned to join the rally not to come with protest signs and to avoid expressions of a political nature. "We just want the boys to return home, we don't have any political agenda," said Goldwasser. Itzik Orbach, a friend of Ron Arad's from flight school, said, "We [the friends of Ron Arad] will make sure the government doesn't fail in efforts to bring about the release of the three soldiers, like it failed with Ron Arad." Orbach added that "If Ron were here, he would be speaking here at this rally, and he would have told you that all of Israel are beholden one to another. He would have told you that Israel would do everything to get its soldiers back because we all grew up with the IDF ethic that you do not leave a comrade behind on the battlefield." Orbach, clearly frustrated with the efforts of successive Israeli governments to retrieve Ron Arad, told Shalit that he should meet with the Arad family, as they were "the only ones who could shed light on how the government operates in this issue." In an emotional meeting, Gilad Shalit's army company arrived at the rally, straight from duty in Gaza, where they had taken part in IDF operations in the Sajaiyeh district of Gaza City. One soldier, Tomer Shtarker, wearing dark glasses because he had been wounded in the operation and could not see well, said, "We came to be with Gilad. It's hard, but we're optimistic. We feel that he is alive, and we hope that he comes back." Another soldier said the feeling in the company was "very bad" since Gilad's abduction. "He's part of our company, he's part of us," he told The Jerusalem Post. The soldiers gathered around Gilad's father, Noam, handed out chocolate wafers and talked for a few minutes, then sat in silence. After the rally, the soldiers go straight back to duty. Ran Cohen (Meretz), who was one of only two Knesset members at the rally, said he was not there in a political capacity but as a member of a Knesset lobby group that meets with the parents and political officials to work for the return of the soldiers. "I'm not sure everything is being done in the way of negotiations," Cohen said. "I'm in favor of negotiations without any conditions, and I'm not sure everything is being done in this respect."