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Father urges release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit

By the CNN Wire Staff
Noam Shalit at his protest tent, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residency in Jerusalem on June 2, 2011.
Noam Shalit at his protest tent, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residency in Jerusalem on June 2, 2011.
  • Shalit was kidnapped from Israel by Palestinian militants five years ago
  • His father, Noam, says the Israeli government must reach a deal to secure his freedom
  • The Red Cross has demanded proof that Shalit is still alive, amid growing concern
  • Hamas wants the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit

Jerusalem (CNN) -- The father of an Israeli soldier kidnapped five years ago by Palestinian militants has called for his release no matter how high the price.

Noam Shalit told CNN this week it was time for the Israeli government to reach a deal with the Hamas movement which controls Gaza that would secure his son Gilad Shalit's freedom.

Noam Shalit has been leading popular calls for a deal from a makeshift "protest tent" put up outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem shortly after Shalit's capture.

The tent houses an empty lawn chair, with a printed sign taped to the seat that reads "Reserved for Gilad Shalit." Above it is a sign with the tally of days he has been kept prisoner in Gaza.

It serves as a potent reminder to the government that the Israeli public, as well as Shalit's family, have not forgotten the young soldier's plight.

Hamas wants nearly 1,000 Palestinians -- many convicted killers -- to be freed from prison in exchange for the soldier, who was abducted aged 19 from Israel five years ago on Saturday.

But ongoing attempts to broker a deal have so far failed, with the Israeli government and Hamas unable to agree on the numbers and terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. We are... just going on with our struggle.
--Noam Shalit
  • Israel
  • Hamas

Noam Shalit told CNN: "We are not responsible for this high price. It is the government, or actually two governments, that made the negotiations in the past five years. I would be glad if there is other alternatives. But there is not [an]other alternative."

The International Red Cross demanded Thursday that Hamas show proof that Shalit is alive, calling the lack of information about him "totally unacceptable" and saying his family had a right to contact with him.

Hamas said it would consider freeing Shalit only once its demand for the release of prisoners was met.

No sign of life has been provided since October 2009, when Hamas released a tape of Shalit in which he pleaded for everything possible to be done to free him.

In response to Hamas's dismissal of the Red Cross request, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Thursday to change the policies that allow Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts to receive special prison benefits, such as access to academic classes.

"We are committed to respect the Israeli law, International law and conventions," Netanyahu said."But we are not committed beyond that and therefore the outstanding conditions inside the Israeli jails will stop.

"We are taking a number of measures for example: the procedure in which murderers can sign up for academic studies. There will no longer be master degrees for murder and doctorates for terror.

"I believe that if we all join forces and exert public and political pressure on Hamas we will move forward the release of Gilad Shalit to his home in peace."

His comments come amid growing public calls in Israel for Hamas prisoners to be subjected to harsher conditions until Shalit is released.

At the same time, a poll reported by Israel's Haaretz newspaper earlier this week suggested 63% of Israelis supported swapping 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including 450 specifically requested by Hamas, for Shalit.

Prisoner swaps have been agreed to in the past -- but Israeli officials say it is harder in this case, as releasing what they say are hardcore terrorists with blood on their hands poses a big security threat.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said that concerns included "not only numbers, but where are they going to live in the future because some of them are very dangerous murderers. There are many questions, this is not the only one."

However, he said he believed the Israeli government understood the importance of reaching a deal soon.

Meanwhile, Noam Shalit continued to press the government to do all it can to free his son.

He told CNN: "I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. We are... just going on with our struggle.

"We cannot afford to give up, we cannot afford to withdraw from our battle, because we know if so we risk that we will never see Gilad back alive at home."

CNN's Matthew Chance, Kevin Flower and Michal Zippori contributed to this report.