MITZPE HILA: Thousands of people joined Gilad Shalit`s family for a mass march from northern Israel to Jerusalem on Sunday to mark four years since the young soldier was captured on the Gaza border.
Wearing white T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan "Gilad is still alive," at least 2,000 demonstrators joined the family as they began walking from their home in Mitzpe Hila near the Lebanese border.
The aim of the march is to ramp up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s government to reach a prisoner swap deal with the Hamas rulers of Gaza, who have held the soldier at a secret location since June 25, 2006.
Some carried banners reading "It`s time to bring Gilad home," others held Israeli flags as they set off on the 200-kilometre (120-mile) trek, which is expected to take around 12 days.
Most had a yellow ribbon tied around their wrist or onto their backpacks -- yellow being the colour of the campaign for his release, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
The protesters are accompanying parents Noam and Aviva Shalit and their two other children on a cross-country march to Jerusalem where they will set up camp outside Netanyahu`s residence.
"I will not return home without Gilad," vowed his father as they set off for the coastal town of Nahariya, some 15 kilometres (nine miles) away.
"We have waited four years and Gilad is still waiting -- those who sent him there must bring him home."
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 2,000 people had joined the march. "We have closed off the main roads because there is such a large number of them," he said.
Friday marked four years since the soldier, now 23, was captured by militants from the Islamist movement Hamas and two other Palestinian groups in a deadly cross-border raid.
Since then, Shalit has had no contact with his family or the International Committee of the Red Cross, a move slammed by Human Rights Watch as cruel and inhuman.
As the demonstrators set off, Netanyahu insisted his government was pursuing all avenues for Shalit`s return and urged the international community to step up diplomatic efforts to that end.
"The government and security officials continue to work at all times by open and covert means for the return home of Gilad Shalit safe and well," he told reporters at the start of the cabinet meeting.
Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, wants hundreds of prisoners in exchange for Shalit, including scores of top militants responsible for deadly attacks.
Prisoner swap talks broke down in December and have not resumed, angering the family which has urged the Israeli government to pay up to secure Shalit`s release.
Nearly three-quarters of Israelis on Friday said they would back a prisoner swap deal in a poll by the Yediot Aharonot daily.
BDST: 1720 HRS, June 27, 2010