JERUSALEM: Like pilgrims to a holy site, thousands of visitors are coming to Jerusalem to visit the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who has been held captive in Gaza for more than four years.
Noam and Aviva Shalit have spent the past four months living in two tents pitched right outside the Jerusalem home of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The location is no coincidence. The worried parents want to make sure the premier gets their message loud and clear: Bring home our son.
For Noam Shalit, whose son holds dual Israeli-French nationality, the steady stream of visitors to the tent is both comforting and encouraging.
"The support of the population is important for us because it’s a way to pressure the prime minister," he told AFP.
Aviva Shalit, who rarely makes public speeches or talks to the media, sits inside welcoming visitors. Next to her is an empty chair marked: "Reserved for Gilad."
The tent is covered in posters and signs calling for the release of the soldier, who is now 24, and the walls alongside it are draped with white sheets covered in messages from well-wishers and supporters.
The words are written in Hebrew, English, Arabic and French, as well as in other languages: "Gilad, we’re praying for you," "Gilad, the people won’t forget you," and "Netanyahu, if it was your son, what you would do?"
Volunteers spend days at the site selling T-shirts emblazoned with Shalit’s picture and handing out bumper stickers and yellow ribbons, which symbolizes a family’s hope for the safe return of a loved one at war.
Visiting the Shalit family has become a regular item on the agenda of visiting foreign ministers and diplomats. And it even attracts foreign tourists.
"Coming to Jerusalem, for me, means going to the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Shalit tent," one French Jewish visitor told AFP.
Inside the tent, he shook hands with Shalit’s parents and told them, in a voice choked with emotion: "I think about Gilad every day."
Next in line was a bus of kibbutz workers from northern Israel, who had come on a day trip and brought with them figs from their orchard.
Then came a group of children from the central city of Raanana, who were visiting the tent as part of a school trip.
"We hope that you will get your son back soon and we are wholeheartedly with you," a class representative told the Shalits.
Often, visitors simply sit in silence on a plastic chair inside the tent.
"It’s like visiting a family in mourning, I’m speechless, powerless in the face of such tragedy," said Anat Cohen, a young woman who stopped by the tent to offer her sympathies.
The flow of visitors is steady, and T-shirts bearing the slogan "Gilad is still alive" sell like hot cakes, modestly priced at 20 shekels (four euros, 5.50 dollars) each.
Volunteers like Yehuda, a colonel in the Israeli reserves, are on hand to take care of the family and the tent.
"Food has to be made, the tent needs to be prepared for the winter, we make sure that the family has everything they need," he said.
Next to the public tent is a second tent that serves as a refuge for the Shalit family, where they rest, eat and read the newspapers.
Just meters (yards) away is a barrier that prevents traffic from entering the street where Netanyahu’s heavily protected home is located.
And facing the entrance to the camp is a large image of the Israeli soldier, and a counter marking the number of days he has spent as a captive — so far 1,617 days.
The young staff sergeant has not been seen by outside observers or by Red Cross representatives since his capture in a deadly raid along the Gaza border by Palestinian militants in June 2006.
The last official information on his well-being emerged in October 2009, when Hamas released a videotape of the young soldier calling on Netanyahu to do everything to free him.
Noam and Aviva Shalit are determined to make it through their crushing ordeal and pledge they will not leave the tent until their son is free.
But the stress caused by the uncertainty of their situation is clear.
"After more than four years, I don’t know who Gilad is," Noam Shalit said quietly.