- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — More than 15,000 Israelis marched into Jerusalem on Thursday and rallied at a park downtown for the government to conclude a deal for the release of a captive soldier held by Palestinian militants.

The turnout marked the climax of a 12-day cross-country campaign led by the family of Sgt. Gilad Schalit.

Protesters wearing T-shirts bearing Sgt. Schalit’s image and yellow ribbons symbolizing his freedom chanted “Gilad is still alive!”

Sgt. Schalit, 23, was nabbed by Hamas-linked militants in June 2006 across the Gaza-Israel border. His captors have barred access to him and released only a brief videotape last year.

The public campaign has increased pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a deal.

Mr. Netanyahu has said he is willing to trade 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Sgt. Schalit, but said he would not accept Hamas‘ demand to include senior militants. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and Mr. Netanyahu fears prisoners would return to violence if freed.

But Sgt. Schalit’s plight has touched many in Israel, where military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens.

Tzahi Haleli, a 47-year-old marcher, said Sgt. Schalit’s fate was at a “breaking point.”

“It will either happen now, or it won’t happen at all,” he said.

Thursday’s marchers were met at the entrance to Jerusalem by a small group that warned of further abductions if the deal goes through.

The Schalit family’s campaign has enjoyed broad public support. Sgt. Schalit’s parents are pledging to camp outside the prime minister’s home until a deal is reached.

Mr. Netanyahu returns from a U.S. visit on Friday.

 

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