Thousands of Israelis demonstrated across the country on Friday to mark four years since Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip.
Some 600 people marched down the main thoroughfare in the Galilee city of Nahariyah, while another 250 staged a protest outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.
A convoy of motorcyclists was also to spread out to the embassies of each of the United Nations permanent Security Council members, urging the international states to pressure Hamas for Shalit’s release.
The Haifa municipality has planned a mass vigil for the evening, when demonstrators will unleash 6,000 balloons to commemorate the soldier’s capture. Another demonstration was planned outside of the International Red Cross’s office in Israel.
The Shalit family will begin on Sunday a march to Jerusalem, where the plan to demonstrate outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence - embarking on a quest they say will end only with Gilad’s return.
“This time it’s different,” says Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father. “We’ve said we would not allow another year to pass without Gilad, and that is what we intend to do this time. We won’t go home without Gilad.”
It is not clear how long the Shalit family and the activists campaigning for his release will have to camp in protest opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem until he decides to bring Gilad home. It is clear that the battle will be hard and long, and that public opinion will play a key role in the outcome.
An international human rights organization called Friday on the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip to allow Shalit to communicate with his family and to receive visits from the International Red Cross.
In a statement issued to mark four years Shalit’s capture, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Hamas of “violating the laws of war” and said the Islamist organization’s “prolonged incommunicado detention of Shalit is cruel and inhuman and may amount to torture.”
Shalit was snatched on June 25, 2006. Hamas, which is holding him, has released only three letters from him, an audio recording, and a video recording.
The Islamist movement has refused requests by the Red Cross and by HRW to visit the captive, saying that to do so could reveal to Israel where he was being held.
“The laws of war prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment of persons in custody. They also require a party to a conflict to permit persons deprived of their liberty to correspond with their families and not to refuse arbitrarily a request by the ICRC to visit detainees,” the HRW statement said.
Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians in return for Shalit. Attempts to organize a prisoner swap, conducted through Egyptian, and then German, mediation, have so far failed.
Senior Hamas official Mahmoud a-Zahar told Israel Radio on Friday morning that his organization cut ties six months ago with the German official mediating the swap, and have not renewed the contacts since.
He said the mediator would return to the region when there was a new exchange proposal on the table.
According to Zahar, Israel had backed down from previous agreements on the matter, and the impasse in the swap talks was due to Israel’s refusal to free several prisoners whose release Hamas demands, and on its insistence that freed Hamas prisoners from the West Bank be exiled to the Gaza Strip.
He added that he had no idea of Shalit’s current condition, and did not even know if the soldier was still being held in the enclave.