Parents of abducted Israeli soldier say state abandoned son; pledge campaign for his release

By Aron Heller, AP
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Abducted soldier’s parents say state abandoned son

JERUSALEM — The parents of an Israeli soldier whose kidnapping led to the Gaza blockade are accusing the government of abandoning their son now that it has eased the closure.

A primary goal of the blockade has been to put pressure on Gaza’s Hamas rulers to free Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by militants in 2006 in a raid that killed two other soldiers.

Now, his parents, Noam and Aviva, are wondering how the nation’s leaders, plan on bringing him home.

“We are asking where Gilad stands in this equation. We are asking where is Gilad, our son?” Noam Schalit said this week in parliament, where he launched a new lobby to push for his son’s release.

The lobby is just one of the new steps the family is taking to keep their 23-year-old son on the radar after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eased the blockade following an international uproar over Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The Schalits will join thousands of supporters, including international supermodel Bar Refaeli and dozens of other local celebrities, on a cross-country march next week. They also have pledged to camp outside the prime minister’s home until they see their son again.

The saga has left Israelis torn between empathy for the anguished family and a realization that four years of pressure on Hamas have failed. Netanyahu also has lost some important leverage over Hamas.

Israel began its blockade of Gaza immediately after militants captured Schalit, who is a dual citizen of Israel and France, in a cross-border raid into Israel on June 25, 2006. It tightened the closure even further after Hamas militants violently seized control of Gaza a year later.

But the outcry following the flotilla raid forced Netanyahu to announce this week that Israel would allow most goods, except for weapons and weapons-related materials, into the coastal strip.

Little is known about Schalit’s condition. His captors have barred any access to him, even following repeated requests from the Red Cross, and have released only a brief videotaped statement last year to prove he was still alive.

Israeli security officials say Hamas often moves Schalit between locations, keeping his whereabouts tightly under wraps. Israel believes that the soldier is boobytrapped and any attempt to free him would result in his death and that of his potential rescuers.

Netanyahu has been careful to avoid any public conflict with Schalit’s parents.

This week he said Israel is seeking ways to bring the soldier home and that the easing of the blockade actually “strengthens our moral demand that the international community doubles or triples its efforts to bring about the release of Gilad Schalit.”

Netanyahu added: “We need to remember though, that my responsibility is both to return Gilad to his family and his nation, and also to take care of the safety and security of the people of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s options appear limited. Military officials believe a rescue operation would be impossible, and German-mediated talks for a prisoner swap with Hamas have repeatedly stalled.

Hamas wants the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including militants held for involvement in deadly attacks.

Israel’s Shin Bet security service has warned that Palestinians convicted of killings would likely resume their attacks against Israelis if released. Such fears have deterred both Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, from closing a deal that could be perceived as a major boost for Hamas.

However, Netanyahu may ultimately have little choice but to deal with the militants.

The plight of the quiet, gangly soldier has touched the hearts of many in Israel, where military service is compulsory for Jews, and most families have relatives who serve.

Israeli newspapers have joined the family’s campaign, endorsing the cross-country march, publishing the list of celebrities taking part and handing out yellow ribbons for readers to wear to support the Schalit cause.

The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra is holding a special concert near the Gaza border — conducted by renowned conductor Zubin Mehta — to call for Schalit’s release. On Tuesday, the soldier’s 85-year-old grandfather met with Netanyahu and told him he didn’t know how much longer he had to see Gilad again.

Lawmaker Amir Peretz, who was defense minister when Schalit was captured, said easing the Gaza blockade did not influence the chances to secure Schalit’s release.

He said a brave decision was needed to swap prisoners for him.

“As long as Gilad Schalit is held in Gaza, Hamas is using him as a political tool,” he said. “We need to end this affair and return Hamas to being the terrorist organization it was before.”

Israel has a long history of paying a disproportionate price for its captive soldiers. Most recently, in July 2008, it released one of Israel’s most notorious prisoners, a Lebanese convicted of shooting an Israeli father dead and killing his daughter by smashing her head on rocks in 1979, in return for the remains of two soldiers killed by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

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