989 days and counting – the captive that Israel won't forget

A father's vigil on the Prime Minister's doorstep is fuelling calls to release Gilad Shalit. Donald Macintyre reports
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The Independent Online

Like most of those who kept dropping by the tent outside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's house yesterday – from the elderly ultra-orthodox man in a homburg to the two young uniformed border policemen with rifles slung over their shoulders – Ziv and Enav Bar-Shira had never met Noam Shalit before. But they had a personal reason for being there. "We sent our daughter to the army today. It is her first day in uniform. And we decided to come to express our solidarity."

Few events would be welcomed by the Israeli people as a whole as much as the safe return of Gilad Shalit, the corporal seized by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006. But for every parent with a conscript son or daughter in Israel's military, the plight of the 22-year-old soldier and the agonising 989-day wait of his parents strikes a special chord. "The bottom line is that the country will be much better off if Gilad is home," said Mr Bar-Shira yesterday. For him, there is no reason to hesitate about agreeing the prisoner exchange demanded by Hamas for Cpl Shalit's return.

Israel, he believes, should "confess" that it "lost the round" when the Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing, killed two soldiers and abducted Cpl Shalit. "I don't think the price is too high," he adds. "The security of Israel is not going to be threatened by handing the prisoners back. It makes no difference whether they are here or there."

Mrs Bar Shira, who also has a son in the army, added: "If a soldier is kidnapped, the army and the government have a responsibility to do whatever is possible to bring him back."

As a forceful reminder to Mr Olmert, now in the closing days of his premiership, of the responsibility he says he has personally assumed for the soldier's safe return, the Shalit family and friends have set up the tent outside his official residence, after close on three years ceaseless activity by the family to secure his release. Campaigners are doing a brisk trade in yellow ribbons, along with T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans reading, "Gilad is waiting for us; what are we waiting for?" and "Gilad is still alive".

"Prime Minister Olmert has handled this crisis to do with my son since he was kidnapped," Noam Shalit told The Independent. "He took it on his responsibility and we are demanding that he resolves this issue before he steps down as Prime Minister." Mr Shalit, quietly spoken, in typically Israeli blue jeans and trainers, said the stream of wellwishers at the tent is "a sign that we have the broad support of the people of Israel, a unanimity of support". He went on: "Gilad is in total isolation without any contact or access to him from the outside world, the free world, I should say. [Hamas] are violating every human right, basic human rights in this pattern of keeping a hostage."

But because of the closure to all but basic humanitarian supplies of the Gaza crossings, which Mr Olmert insists will not be opened until Cpl Shalit is released in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the soldier's father adds that "Hamas is also keeping hundreds of thousands of Palestinian non-involved civilians" hostages too. "The civilian population are paying the price because they have been almost three years under siege, under hunger, under terrible poverty, because of my son's captivity. This is the crack inside the bottle. If we remove the crack, many things will be better for the Palestinians, as well as for Gilad of course."

That said, there is no doubt to whom Mr Shalit is directing this dignified and determined campaign. Mr Olmert's wife, Aliza, yesterday invited Noam and Aviva Shalit into the house and told them: "If I was not a witness to the intensive efforts being invested in Gilad's release, I certainly would have joined the protest tent myself." Saying that only "the tip of the iceberg" of those efforts had been reported in the media, she added: "I hope that it will be possible for the Prime Minister to complete this step in his remaining time in office."

The Shalits, who were visited in the tent by a sympathetic Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, on Monday, also held a meeting with the President, Shimon Peres.

But earlier Mr Shalit was scornful of Mr Olmert's suggestion that the campaign tent could be "damaging".

He says: "For me, it was quite pathetic. He didn't manage to put any leverage on Hamas and now he is not willing to pay the price. He has had enough time to consider all the alternatives, all the means of leverage. Israel has many ways and means to handle such a case because it's not complicated. He was not taken to the Tora Bora mountains. He is one hour from Tel Aviv. After such a long time, I would like to think there is no choice other than to pay the right price for Gilad." Avoiding comment on Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza – "I'm not a political commentator or a military expert" – Mr Shalit added simply that he wants to see Mr Olmert "conclude this issue" before he steps down or "to obtain a breakthrough and enable his successor to conclude it".

Mr Shalit is "frightened" that a new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu "will have to start all over again".

One visitor to the tent, Youval Arad, the daughter of the airman missing in Lebanon for 22 years, told him on Monday that because a succession of governments had to start handling the case from scratch, "finally Ron Arad disappeared and we lost him". And he has learnt something else from the case of Ron Arad, "whose wife Tami was telling me directly not to make her mistakes in that period", most notably to wait quietly "for the government to bring back the pilot but it never happened". One of the Shalit family's neighbours in the little Western Galilee village of Mitzpe Hila, businessman Amir Gur Lavi, sometimes worries that deep down Hamas may not be certain it wants the prisoners back because "they will have to listen to what they say, they will have to give them jobs" and they could lose the leverage afforded them by holding the corporal. "The Palestinian people should ask themselves whether their leaders are doing whatever they can to give them the prisoners back."

But he stresses the importance of a breakthrough on Mr Olmert's watch even more forcefully than Mr Shalit himself. He fears that if Mr Netanyahu heads a narrow, right-wing government, his coalition partners would baulk at a deal requiring the release of Hamas prisoners "with blood on their hands", despite polls showing solid majorities of up to 75 per cent among the Israeli people for doing just that. If Mr Olmert stands down without achieving the necessary breakthrough, says Mr Gur Lavi, "it will be like a declaration that we don't know if Gilad is coming back".

So Mr Gur Lavi has taken valuable time off from running the Zeita olive oil factory in northern Israel, to join the Shalit family here? "I take two or three hard decisions a day, normally," he says. "That was a very easy decision."