Four years and two days after their son was abducted to the Gaza Strip, the family members of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit on Sunday morning embarked on a 12-day march from their home in the northern community of Mitzpe Hila to Jerusalem. Ynet is offering a live broadcast of the march throughout the day.
The Shalit family was expected to be joined by thousands of Israelis throughout the journey, in an aim to pressure the government to secure Gilad's release from Hamas captivity. About an hour after the journey began, police officials estimated that 10,000 people were taking part in the march.
Noam Shalit locks house (Photo: Avishag Shear-Yeshuv)
Shalit's mother, Aviva, said upon leaving her house: "Today we are embarking on a long and exhausting journey. We'll return home only with Gilad."
In a short statement, the kidnapped soldier's mother thanked all the Israelis who joined the march. "With the help of the public which will join us along the way, with your help, we will return home only with Gilad. Good luck to all of us," she said.
The parents were greeted with applause as they arrived for a rally at the center of the community. The captive's father, Noam Shalit, said: "Gilad has been waiting for four whole years, and is still waiting for those who sent him, for his commanders, for the prime ministers, for the defense ministers, but they are not answering. Instead, he hears – we hear, because I don't know if he can hear – plenty of excuses."
Activists near family home (Photo: Avishag Shear-Yeshuv)
Shalit said his son was the only one paying the price for the government's failures. "No one is volunteering to share the price for failures with Gilad," he said, adding that "even pets get better conditions than Gilad. At least they get to see the light of day.
"The discussion on the life of an IDF soldier has turned, unfortunately, from a discussion about values and ethos to a trade-in, so today we are saying that we won't wait anymore here in our home in Mitzpe Hila," the father said.
He called on the government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to "end this sad saga, which is proof of inadequacy which the State of Israel has never seen before."
50 cyclists to escort family
Miki Goldwasser, the mother of fallen soldier Ehud Goldwasser who was kidnapped by Hezbollah, told Ynet ahead of the march: "I have yet to reach closure. According to the Hebrew calendar, tomorrow is my son's memorial day - the day he fell during the kidnapping – and I will come full circle only when I see Gilad at home. I believe the people of Israel will escort the Shalit family and bring Gilad back home."
Hundreds of activists gathered in Mitzpe Hila ahead of the march. Noam Shalit, the kidnapped soldier's father, said that the family "has no plans to return home until our son Gilad returns."
The family will be accompanied by the activists, who are wearing shirts reading, "Gilad is still alive", and carrying yellow ribbons. After a short ceremony in the center of the community, the march will continue to Nahariya. The community's streets have been decorated with signs supporting the march.
The activists were joined by some 50 cyclists, some of whom left from Tel Aviv on Saturday night and rode 175 kilometers (109 miles) to reach the family's home before dawn. "The goal was not to ride, but to raise the awareness for Gilad's condition and light his way home," said one of the cyclists," Ofer Zindorf.
'This is our flotilla'
"I hope this march will be our flotilla," campaign chief Shimshon Libman told Ynet on Saturday night. "Because of the flotilla, the State quickly gave up all the pressure levers it was so proud of – the Gaza blockade and the release of Hamas men from jail. Perhaps our own 'flotilla' to Jerusalem will also make a difference."
An aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday night that the protest march was "a legitimate move on the part of the family. We understand the family and its pain and have no objection or criticism about it. The prime minister met with the Shalit family members in the past and will do the same in the future as well in order to do all he can to bring about Gilad's release as soon as possible."
According to the plan, the participants are expected to arrive in Tel Aviv next Monday and make their way to the Kerem Shalom crossing, where Shalit was kidnapped more than four years ago.
On the last days of the march the family members will make their way to the final point in Jerusalem and will stay in the protest tent which has been operating in the capital for more than a year, where they say they plan to remain until their son returns home safe and sound.
Gilad Shalit was kidnapped into the Gaza Strip 1,463 days ago.
Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report