TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Thousands of marchers brought Israel’s cultural and financial capital to a standstill, urging the government to do whatever it takes to win freedom for a soldier captured four years ago by Gaza militants.
Near Israel’s border with Gaza, thousands more gathered for a concert led by a world-famous conductor to press Hamas to let the Red Cross visit the soldier for the first time.
The two scenes Monday _ aimed at drawing renewed attention to the soldier’s plight _ are part of a high-profile campaign that has opened deep divisions in Israel and put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive.
While the nation overwhelmingly wants Sgt. Gilad Schalit to come home to his family, there are deep disagreements over whether the price demanded by Hamas is too high: the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted of terror attacks.
There is broad consensus that something must be done. But not everyone blames the government for its inability to free Schalit. Some are aiming their anger at Hamas, an Iranian-backed group that has killed hundreds of Israelis, while others have even criticized the Schalit movement, saying it is weakening Israel and making it less likely that he will ever be freed.
Hamas-linked militants seized Schalit four years ago inside Israel in a cross-border raid that killed two other soldiers. In return for his release, Hamas is demanding that Israel free some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including militants convicted of involvement in deadly attacks. Israel is holding an estimated 6,300 Palestinian prisoners, according to B’tselem, an Israeli advocacy group.
Schalit’s family has now taken to the streets to try to force the Israeli government to bend, and the campaign has drawn some 120,000 marchers over the past week, according to organizers. They have included politicians and celebrities like Israeli international supermodel Bar Refaeli.
Their 12-day march will end on Thursday outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where the Schalit family has pledged to camp until they see their son again.
Schalit’s captors have barred any access, even by the Red Cross, and released only a brief videotape last year to prove he was still alive.
On Monday, the parade-like procession arrived in Tel Aviv. Marchers wore T-shirts bearing Schalit’s image, and teenagers in scout uniforms chanted, “Don’t give up! Gilad is still alive!”
Drivers stuck in traffic honked their horns in support, and soldiers at the Israeli military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv cheered as the marchers passed.
Also Monday, renowned conductor Zubin Mehta held a concert near the Israel-Gaza border to call for Schalit’s release. “We hope and we pray that the music will inspire people on the other side to open their hearts,” Mehta told the audience of thousands, urging Hamas to let Red Cross representatives see the soldier.
The Israeli public appears to overwhelmingly support the family’s call, with polls indicating up to 75 percent approval. The country’s main newspapers have endorsed the march _ even distributing the Schalit campaign’s yellow ribbons in solidarity _ and there are TV anchors who sign off by marking the soldier’s days in captivity.
Netanyahu has been careful not to confront the family directly, but has made it clear that despite Israel’s long history of paying a disproportionate price for its captive soldiers he will not free Palestinians who might resume their deadly attacks.
“I am not willing to repeat a policy that with the test of time led to the murders of dozens of Israelis,” he said last week in a special televised address. “Israel is willing to pay a heavy price for the return of Gilad Schalit, but it cannot pay any price.”
Some families of Israelis killed in suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks hope Israel will not release convicted killers.
“For victims, it is very important to know that the one who hurt you will not hurt others again,” said Meir Indor, chairman of the Almagor Terror Victims Association. “It is not a need for vengeance. It’s a need for balance.”
But the plight of the quiet, gangly soldier has touched the hearts of many in Israel, where military service is mandatory for Jews, and almost all Jewish families have relatives who serve.
“I have a son in the army and I hope that if, heaven forbid, he was captured everything would be done to bring him home,” said Etti Danbo, 53, one of the marchers. “Gilad is like my son. He could be anyone’s son.”
Several retired military and security chiefs have said Israel’s moral responsibility to bring home the captive soldier overrides the potential danger posed by those released in return.
The heated debate is even dividing families of victims of Palestinian attacks.
Ron Kehrmann, whose 17-year-old daughter Tal was killed in a Palestinian bus bombing in 2003, opposes a swap that could free those responsible for his daughter’s death.
“Everyone would like to see the kidnapped soldier free, the only debate is the price,” he said. “Unfortunately, I paid the price and I know what it is like to pay the price.”
His ex-wife Orly, the mother of his late daughter, disagreed.
“We constantly live under threats. I don’t think that releasing these 1,000 terrorists will change that much. But, as a people, I think that not getting Gilad released is much worse,” she said. “My daughter cannot be brought back. Gilad Schalit still can be.”