Israelis block Gaza to push for Shalit release

Hamas parliament speaker Aziz Dweik freed from jail


Dozens of Israeli protestors blocked crossings into Gaza on Tuesday to push for the release of a soldier held captive by Islamists in the Hamas-run enclave as the Israeli Defense Forces released the head of the Palestinian parliament after three years in prison.

Jewish Israelis demonstrators held back lines of aid trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing into southern Gaza demanding that its Hamas rulers give a sign of life of Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Palestinian fighters on June 25, 2006.

"The message is for the Hamas government to give an answer from Gilad Shalit so Israel can know if he is alive," David Gilboa, one of the organizers of the rally, told AFP.

The protest was a response to the release of Dweik, 60, who arrived at a military checkpoint outside the city of Tulkarem in the north of the occupied West Bank after his release from Hadarim prison near Tel Aviv, greeted by a horde of reporters.

At the Erez crossing in the north, scores of protestors demanded the Israeli government do more to bring the serviceman home.

"The Palestinian prisoners in Israel get visits, television and even education," said Eric Sadan, as he stood at Erez, where protestors were blocking three United Nations vehicles from crossing into the Gaza Strip.

"Not only can we not visit Gilad, the Red Cross cannot either," he said.
Another group of around 50 protestors gathered about a kilometer (0.5 mile) from the Karni goods crossing, where police kept them from getting closer.

On the other side of the border at Erez a crowd of Palestinians staged a counter-protest to demand the release of detainees held in Israeli jails, where at least 9,000 Palestinians are currently locked up.

The message is for the Hamas government to give an answer from Gilad Shalit so Israel can know if he is alive

David Gilboa, rally organizer

Shalit was 19 when snatched by Islamists from Hamas and two smaller groups who had tunneled out of Gaza and attacked an army post, killing two other soldiers. He is believed to be somewhere inside Gaza.

Since his capture Hamas has allowed him to send out three written letters and an audiotape. His last sign of life was a letter passed through the human rights organization headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in June 2008.

Israel and Hamas have held months of indirect talks through Egypt on a prisoner exchange that would see hundreds of Palestinian detainees set free in exchange for Shalit, but no deal has been struck.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a new point man for the talks when he took office on March 31, but the talks have yet to be renewed.

The Palestinian prisoners in Israel get visits, television and even education

Eric Sadan, Israeli protestor

Free Again

In tandem, Israeli authorities released the Hamas Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, but the move appeared unrelated to Shalit.
"Any person deprived of his freedom feels an enormous hardship," Dweik told AFP.

Hamas welcomed Dweik's release in a statement, saying it "should breathe new life into and reinforce the parliament and introduce a certain balance to the West Bank faced with the monstrosity of Fatah and its security services."

Dweik's release comes after a military tribunal at the Ofer military base near Ramallah rejected an application by prosecutors to keep Dweik behind bars after his three-year sentence ran out.

Dweik was elected speaker in February 2006, a month after the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in a surprise rout of the long dominant Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas.

He was arrested by Israeli security forces at his Ramallah home in August 2006 in a West Bank crackdown on Hamas in which more than 60 elected officials were detained, including a third of the then government and more than two dozen MPs.

Some were later released, but at least 35 remain in custody. Israel currently holds some 9,260 Palestinian prisoners, according to Palestinian figures.

The crackdown came after Hamas and other Gaza militants seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006. He remains in captivity to this day.

In December 2008, an Israeli military court sentenced Dweik to three years in prison -- including the 28 months he had already served -- for membership of Hamas, which Israel like the European Union and the United States blacklists as a terror group.

Hamas has 74 MPs in the 132-parliament and Fatah 45, with the rest of the deputies belonging to smaller factions.