Israeli protesters on Sunday marked the 25th birthday of its soldier Gilad Shalit, held prisoner by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for a fifth of his life.
About 200 supporters gathered in the evening at the Erez crossing on the border with Gaza to demand the release of the young tank driver who was just 19 when he was snatched in June 2006.
His father Noam Shalit, among the crowd, accused Israeli leaders of having “abandoned” his son. “Leaders who abandon a soldier have no right to govern the country,” he said.
“The world is silent. The Red Cross is powerless. The UN does not intervene, and a young man carries on his shoulders the full weight of our fight against the terrorist organisation Hamas,” which rules Gaza, said Tel Aviv’s grand rabbi, Israel Meir Lau.
At mid-day, hundreds of Israelis also gathered near Kerem Shalom border crossing, on the edge of Gaza, where the soldier was captured in a cross-border raid from the enclave which left two other soldiers dead and three wounded.
“We came because we must put an end to the situation where the Gaza Strip is open to (the import of) goods, but Gilad Shalit for all these years remains a prisoner of Hamas,” organiser Tzahi Leon told AFP by telephone.
Demonstrators waving signs called on lorry drivers heading for the Palestinian territory to turn back but did not resist Israeli police orders to clear the road to the border, a police spokeswoman said.
Earlier, Shalit’s parents and their supporters had also rallied outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem office as ministers held their weekly cabinet meeting, local media reported.
Father Noam held up a sign reading, “Netanyahu: You have no mandate to kill Gilad,” while his wife Aviva carried a sign asking the premier for “A birthday present for Gilad — his life back.”
To mark the birthday of the young man, who also holds French nationality, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a letter which was delivered to his parents on Sunday, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
“Dear Gilad, France will not forget you,” it read.
“On the contrary, we are particularly close to you on this sad anniversary on which your captors will again have prevented you from spending in freedom, with those who you love.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has also written to the Shalit family, saying: “France will not give up. It will remain active as long as Gilad is not a free man at your side.”
On Saturday night, the father was guest of honour at a Tel Aviv social justice rally demanding affordable housing and other reforms.
Protesters carried banners saying: “Gilad Shalit is entitled to a home too.”
Speaking to a cheering crowd, Shalit urged the Israeli government to “pay the price required to bring Gilad home” — or resign.”
The soldier was snatched by gunmen from three militant groups, including the armed wing of the Hamas, the Islamist movement which has ruled Gaza since June 2007.
Shalit is still being held at a secret location, without any contact with his family or visits by the Red Cross. The last sign of life was in October 2009 in a video recording released by his captors.
Indirect negotiations brokered by Egypt and Germany over a prisoner exchange, which would see the release of hundreds of Palestinians detainees in exchange for Shalit, have led nowhere.