Less than a week after quieting international criticism over the Gaza flotilla by easing Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under new pressure over Gaza – from Israelis.
The family of abducted Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Shalit argued last week that by easing the blockade the government had forfeited its leverage in prisoner swap talks with Hamas. Now, the Shalits – tapping a wellspring of public sympathy for the boyish soldier whose image adorns shops, signs, and billboards across Israel – are taking what some see as a page out of the flotilla's PR playbook by staging an event Israel can't afford to ignore.
Joined by thousands of supporters, the Shalits embarked Sunday on a 12-day march from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem. They have vowed to camp outside Mr. Netanyahu's door until their son comes home, pressuring the premier to make the concessions necessary to secure his freedom – including the release of hundreds of Hamas activists.
"The Shalit family and the supporters have learned from the organizers of the flotilla that if you want to get anything done you have to pressure the Israeli government and create a major PR event to deliver your message,'' says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert based in Tel Aviv. "This is why they are raising the pressure.''
Shalit captured four years ago this month
On Monday, an Israeli commission of inquiry into the Gaza blockade and the deaths of nine Turkish activists in a skirmish with Israeli commandos on the flotilla said it planned to take testimony from Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Though diplomatic pressure has eased, Israeli media say the government is still being pressed in private for more relaxations of the blockade and for an international commission of inquiry.
It was the capture of Sergeant Shalit by Palestinian militants on the Gaza-Israel border four years ago this month that prompted Israel to severely restrict the passage of goods at commercial crossings. The blockade was tightened to exclude everything but humanitarian supplies after Hamas's violent ousting of secular rival Fatah in 2007, though aid groups still had trouble getting basic items such as pasta and jam into the territory.
Embattled by the blockade and last year's Gaza war, Hamas offered Israel a prisoner swap deal late in 2009 that was reportedly very close to Israel's requirements. But despite the years of economic pressure, the Islamist group refused to accept Israel's demand that many of the militants involved in the swap, including Marwan Barghouti, would be expelled from the Palestinian territories upon their release. The talks have been stalemated since.
Three cabinet ministers to join Shalit march
On Monday, three cabinet ministers said they planned to join the Shalit family march to Jerusalem, a sign of how evenly split Israel's government is over the failure to secure Shalit's release. Shalit's plight resonates with Israelis, regardless of political affiliation, because of Israel's mandatory draft for all 18-year old males.
"The campaign is effective with the Israeli public. The feeling is that everyone has a soldier somewhere,'' says Uzi Dayan, a former general who is a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party. "Although I understand them, they are marching to their own address. There must be much more pressure on Hamas. Putting pressure on your own government signals to Hamas that they can get what they want. From their point of view, they can raise the price.''
"The more time passes, we will raise the level of the demands," he said. "We aren't satisfied with Shalit only, and, God willing, the freedom fighters will succeed in kidnapping other soldiers.''
That's precisely why some Israelis, though sympathetic with the Shalits' plight, have opposed an asymmetric prisoner swap deal in the past.