Thousands rally in front of Israeli PM's house, calling for release of soldier held by Hamas

JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of people rallied outside the Israeli prime minister's residence Saturday, demanding he conclude a deal to secure the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants more than four years ago.

The show of support for Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was seized by Hamas-allied militants inside Israel in a 2006 cross-border raid, comes on the soldier's 24th birthday.

More than seven thousand people took part in the rally outside premier Benjamin Netanyahu's house, some of them toting large white banners bearing Schalit's picture.

Hamas has demanded Israel release hundreds of prisoners, including many who carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, in exchange for Schalit.

No one but his Hamas captors have seen Schalit since he was abducted, but the group released a brief videotape last year to prove he was still alive.

Israelis are divided on whether such a deal should take place. There is a strong emotional sentiment behind freeing a soldier at any cost. But there are those that oppose the deal because statistics show that many Palestinian militants freed in past prisoner swaps have returned to violence upon their release.

On Saturday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a message to Schalit's family, promising that "we will never give up" trying to free him. Schalit is French-Israeli.

Britain's Foreign Office released a short statement demanding Schalit's release, calling his detention "unjustifiable and unacceptable."