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Jerusalem's sidewalk display of solidarity with Gilad Shalit

At an open-air tent in the city, volunteers call for government action to win the soldier's release from his Hamas captors. But not all Israelis agree with the tradeoff that would entail.

March 05, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — One of Jerusalem's most conspicuous new landmarks is a big white tent erected for an Israeli soldier. Children's drawings line its walls, but the most poignant display is a three-digit number, visible to motorists on busy Azza Street, that changes daily.

Wednesday was Day 983 since Gilad Shalit was seized along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. The sidewalk tent is the headquarters of a flourishing citizens lobby that wants Israel to meet the demands of Shalit's Hamas captors and bring the 22-year-old staff sergeant home.

Shalit's fate is a gripping cause celebre in a country where 18-year-olds are drafted and the military prides itself on never abandoning its own. But the tent is stirring controversy as the government ponders the Palestinian militant group's insistence that hundreds of its imprisoned members, including dozens convicted of killing Israelis, be freed in exchange for Shalit.

The tent lobbyists argue that the Jewish state, which has made such lopsided trades in the past, is strong enough to pay the price.

"There's not much time," said Michal Bar-On, a volunteer who was in the tent one rainy afternoon collecting signatures on a petition. A sense of urgency is growing with the countdown toward Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's departure from office as soon as his designated successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, can assemble a governing coalition.

Olmert and Hamas would seem to share an interest in a deal. The return of Shalit, captured June 25, 2006, and presumably held in Gaza, would close a circle for Olmert, whose centrist-led coalition had come to power the previous month. Both sides presume that the more hawkish Netanyahu would rather not negotiate with Hamas.

But the lack of evident progress toward an exchange troubles the soldier's advocates. That's why they've pitched the tent several yards from Olmert's residence, staff it up to 16 hours a day and vow to stay until Shalit is free. His father plans to join them next week.

The tent is so close that Olmert's wife, Aliza, recently summoned an organizer to complain.

"We're happy that it bothers them because that's the idea," said Yael Roth-Barkai, a 52-year-old teacher who put up the tent six months ago. "We know the prime minister sees us standing here day after day. But what's on his mind?"

Olmert tried to answer that question in a televised interview last week. He had been silent on Shalit's fate in recent months while advocacy groups seized the spotlight in the soldier's name, displaying his photograph on billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Songs have been composed, cycling events held and street races run in Shalit's honor. School classes and prayer groups meet in the tent. On the second anniversary of his capture, many Facebook members replaced their pictures with his.

The movement, whose activists span the political spectrum, includes Shalit's friends and family but also hundreds who have never met him. It has drawn support from a constituency normally averse to freeing Palestinian militants: Israelis who might see their loved ones' killers go free.

"They should release whomever they have to release in order to bring him home," Rachel Koren, who lost her husband and two teenage sons in a Haifa restaurant bombing, said in one endorsement.

In the television interview, Olmert criticized "excessive talking" about Shalit. "The other side reads our newspapers, listens to our programs and says to itself, 'If they are so obsessive about this, why not then raise the price?' " he said.

Olmert upped Israel's ante last month by refusing to lift a blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza until Shalit is free. Israel is negotiating quietly through Egyptian mediators and is prepared to free "many terrorists," Olmert said, but not at the expense of its security.

For the same reason, many Israelis take offense at the petition drive in the tent, which has gathered 15,000 signatures.

Rachel Friedman, who lost a sister and a niece in a Jerusalem bombing, told IsraelNationalNews.com ttp:// www.israelnationalnews.com/ "> www.israelnationalnews.com/ , "Our army is strong enough to find a different way to release Gilad Shalit, and not by freeing murderers."

Roth-Barkai said she hears that argument every day from people who pass the tent and refuse to sign. "But there are too many other Palestinians with the motivation to hurt Israel" to worry about prisoners who would go free, she said.

She also noted that Israel's recent military assault on Gaza neither freed Shalit, though that was not an explicit goal, nor altered Hamas' price of 450 prisoners at first, followed by about 1,000 more.

Adina Schwartz, 53, a dentist and tent volunteer, said the best argument for paying that price is army morale.

"I have three children who served in the army," she said. "It's very important for every soldier and his family to know that if something happens to him, the state will do everything to get him back."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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