Thousands gather to mark Gilad Schalit's 24th birthday

Family and supporters rally in Jerusalem on kidnapped soldier's 5th birthday as hostage; Sarah Netanyahu says PM is making great efforts, will meet with Schalits after return from Washington.

Schalit protest 311 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Schalit protest 311
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Thousands of people gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s house on Saturday night to mark Gilad Schalit’s 24th birthday and fifth birthday in captivity, and to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to forget Gilad when he goes to Washington next week.
“Also this year I did not buy a present, I did not bake a cake, and you will not blow out your candles,” Aviva Schalit said to the crowd. “We are doing everything to make your wish come true, but in reality it lies in the hands of the Prime Minister who lives just across the street.”
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Aviva Schalit also singled out Sara Netanyahu’s recent activism on behalf of the children of foreign workers. “My heart also goes out to them. But allow me to remind you of a boy, now a young man, that for more than four years has been imprisoned in a hole in Gaza,” she said.
The prime minister's wife responded to Aviva Schalit's message Saturday night saying that she understood the paid of the Schalit family and that "my heart goes out to them and to Gilad."
 "I know," she said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office, "that my husband the Prime Minister is making great efforts to return Gilad home safe and sound."
The statement said that the Netanyahus will meet with the Schalit family soon after their return from Washington next Friday.
Among those attending at the event were Nobel laureate Ada Yonat, singers Yardena Arazi and Gidi Gov, the parents of Udi Golwasser, who was kidnapped by Hezbollah, Nava Barak, and MK Ronit Tirosh.
The acting French ambassador read a statement from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who stated that “Gilad’s fifth birthday in captivity must also be his last.” Sarkozy also said that because Gilad has had no contact with his family and no visits from humanitarian organizations, he is a hostage and not a prisoner of war.
A minor disturbance broke out during MK Dalia Itzik’s speech, with boos and cries of “you should be ashamed!” “I remember the first time I met with you, and I told you he’d be back within two months, but I couldn’t imagine it would take four years,” said Itzik. When she said that “I am proud to be part of a family that doesn’t leave anyone behind,” and insisting the government was doing everything possible to bring Gilad back, the crowd started chanting “Go home!”
About 20 regular volunteers assisted dozens of policemen in providing order. The volunteers said they were mostly satisfied with the turnout, and that since the Schalit’s march from their home in Mitzpe Hila to the tent outside the prime minister’s residence in June, there has been a lot more public support.
“It’s important to be here, because people do forget, they’re raising children and going to work, and it’s not possible for the public to hold onto this cause so strongly for so many years,” said Liraz Biran, who came with her husband from Tel Mond, in honor of their oldest child who is now getting out of the army.
“It’s exciting to be here, and I came because it’s important to put pressure on the Prime Minister, that Gilad will come home,” said Romi Schwartz, 12, who came with her father and sister from Ashkelon. “We heard Aviva on the radio asking people to come, and we decided to do something.
The stage was decorated with pictures of Gilad as a young boy and a birthday cake with 25 candles. Emblazoned on the cake was “1525 days in captivity.” One of the chairs on the stage was left symbolically empty for Gilad.
The Schalits reiterated their pledge not to leave the tent until Gilad is home.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.