Freed hostage hit by spray from police water cannon

As hope for deal fills Hostages Square, chaos erupts at nearby anti-Netanyahu rally

Using mounted officers and water cannons, police in Tel Aviv clash with protesters in scenes reminiscent of pre-Oct. 7 civil unrest over judicial overhaul; 21 arrested

Mounted police clash with protesters on Tel Aviv's Kaplan Street, February 24, 2024. (@sha_b_p/Benny Meshy/Israel Pro-Democracy Protest Movement;X, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Police used water cannons against anti-government protesters while clashing with them in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, as demonstrators at a nearby rally calling for the return of hostages held in Gaza expressed rare optimism following reported progress in talks on a hostage deal with Hamas.

The clashes, the most violent of their kind since the outbreak of war on October 7, resulted in 21 arrests and several injuries Saturday night on Kaplan Street, opposite the Kirya army base, which is the headquarters of Israel’s defense establishment.

Protesters at adjacent Democracy Square — the intersection of Kaplan Street and Begin Road — confronted officers who were tasked with preventing the demonstrators from blocking the Ayalon Highway, a police spokesperson said. Clashes and water cannon blasts also reached demonstrators gathered at the site of the anti-government rally approved by police.

At least two of arrested demonstrators were leaders of the protest movement against the government, according to spokespeople for a loose affiliation of groups on their WhatsApp channel titled “Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement.” Several people required medical treatment after the clashes, in which mounted police knocked over some 10 individuals to push back the crowd.

A demonstrator falls after being hit by a mounted police officer during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Video showed one mounted officer using the reins of his horse to strike a protester across the head.

The demonstrator was then seen falling to the ground while clutching his head, as the officer rode on on.

Other protesters rushed over to check on the man and help him stand, and a police officer then came up to ask if he was alright. It was not immediately clear if he required medical attention.

“The police violence this evening toward protesters, among them the families of hostages, is dangerous, antidemocratic and cannot continue,” Opposition leader Yair Lapid said. “The right to protest is a fundamental right, and it cannot be taken from protesters with batons and water cannons.”

A police statement on the arrests said protesters “gathered illegally” in the street and disturbed the peace.

“Unfortunately, today we saw a number of protesters who came with the purpose of confronting the police, and not for a legitimate protest,” the statement charged.

Police use a water cannon to disperse protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, in Tel Aviv, on February 24, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Urging the PM to go

At the approved rally area, speakers called for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, among other demands, including progress on negotiations for a hostage agreement with Hamas and a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of the demonstrators came to protest a bill that would extend the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from mandatory military and national service.

Smaller protest rallies in which thousands participated were also held nationwide on Saturday evening, including in Kfar Saba and Caesarea near Netanyahu’s private residence, where protesters briefly blocked a main traffic artery.

Anti-government protesters on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, with a banner reading “You’re the leader, you are guilty,” February 24, 2024. (Ofer Mariah / Israel Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

One speaker at the Tel Aviv protest, Lt. Or Scheinberg (res.) of the 7th Armored Brigade, who was seriously injured during the ongoing war sparked by the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught, called during his speech “on the most failed government in history: Leave.”

“While we the reservists are carrying this country on our shoulders, this criminal government is sitting behind us. I hereby call on all reservists who may feel uncomfortable protesting during a war to do so,” he added.

Police arrest an anti-government protester on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (Roi Boshi/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

Addressing the anti-government rally, former defense minister Moshe Yaalon railed at Netanyahu for refusing to take responsibility for October 7.

“The responsibility of heads of the defense establishment is clear and they have taken responsibility, so we will now let them fight in good conscience. But you, Netanyahu, you are at the head, so you are guilty,” Yaalon added, using a slogan employed by the anti-Netanyahu protest movement since October 7, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered about 1,200 people in Israel and took 253 as hostages.

Of the hostages, more than 100 were freed as part of a weeklong truce agreement in late November. Another 130 — not all of them alive — are believed to be held in Gaza. Their return is the subject of talks in Paris between Israel, the United States, Egypt and Qatar. On Saturday, Israeli media reported progress in the negotiations about a 6-week truce and the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for some 40 Israeli hostages. Netanyahu said he would bring the matter to a vote Sunday in the war cabinet, which on Saturday night voted to send a delegation to Qatar for additional thoughts.

The Hamas atrocities prompted an Israeli offensive against the terrorist group in Gaza and escalating exchanges of fire with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The fighting largely sidelined the political conflict that had been raging since January 2023 between the right-wing government of Netanyahu and its supporters and a determined protest movement that grew out of opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul push.

In recent weeks, however, protests have gradually increased in volume and intensity, peaking in the clashes Saturday night.

Freed hostage hit by spray from a water cannon

Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is presumed to be held captive in Gaza, attended the anti-government rally in Tel Aviv, where she chanted into a megaphone about the need to retrieve the hostages. She and Matan’s girlfriend Ilana Gritzewsky, who was held hostage in Gaza for 55 days before her release in November, were hit by a police water cannon while protesting, the Ynet news site reported.

Matan Zangauker (right) and Ilana Gritzewsky were abducted from their Kibbutz Nir Oz home by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

According to the report, the two got caught up in clashes between police forces and anti-government protesters, at which point the police deployed water cannons despite the pair being within the pre-approved boundaries of the protest route.

Speaking to the Hebrew outlet, Zangauker said the two were part of a crowd of protesters who “blocked the lanes on Begin Street and held a torchlit march as we surrounded the Kirya military base with the permission of the police.”

When the protest reached Kaplan Street, however, where a large anti-government protest was erupting into chaos as mounted police officers arrived to disperse crowds attempting to block traffic, the officer who was accompanying them left and they were hit with the water cannon, she said, adding that the police failed to coordinate with each other to prevent this from happening.

“I am the mother of a hostage, Ilana was in captivity for 55 days and came to sound the cry for her partner, and this is the treatment we receive?” Einav lamented.

Former hostage Ilana Grisewsky, center, takes part in a protest in Tel Aviv calling on the government to return the remaining abductees held by Hamas in Gaza, on February 24, 2024. The protesters merged with anti-government demonstrators, prompting police to use water cannons to disperse the crowds. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

‘An optimistic moment’

About 500 yards away from the anti-government rally, at Hostages Square on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, thousands of people attended the 20th consecutive weekly rally for the return of the hostages. The reported progress in Paris inspired rare hope at that rally, which is organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

Citing the progress, Eyal Eshel, whose daughter Roni was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7 at the Nahal Oz army base, said that Saturday’s rally at Hostages Square was “an optimistic moment.”

The forum, which says it is nonpartisan, has at past rallies highlighted the plight of families of hostages and featured many speakers who criticized the government and called for the resignation of its members. Some speakers accused Netanyahu of sabotaging the hostages’ return to extend the war to avoid elections.

By contrast, Saturday’s rally included multiple expressions of hope and rare praise for Netanyahu.

“We strengthen you, our prime minister, so you may continue on your courageous path,” Anat Angrest, whose son Matan is being held hostage in Gaza, said in her speech, adding this was to “give the people of Israel the image of victory they want: hostages returning home, soldiers returning to their mothers.”

“We are feeling optimistic about our military leaders and the diplomatic leaders,” she added.

Matan Angrest was taken hostage on October 7, 2023 from his tank unit at the Nahal Oz army base (Courtesy)

Angrest did criticize “radicals,” as she described them, whom she suggested may oppose the deal. It was an obvious reference to far-right politicians such as Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who have said they will block a deal that they feel would jeopardize Israel’s security or constitute a surrender to Hamas.

“Stop issuing reckless calls,” Angrest said, echoing the term used by Ben Gvir for what he says would be an unacceptable deal. “Avoid presenting a hostage deal as a compromise on security. Stop making cynical use of grieving families. Stop doing elections and campaigns,” she said.

Earlier Saturday, the Tikvah Forum of hostages’ relatives, which opposes making the concessions to Hamas that many speakers at Hostages Square events have demanded, warned in a statement against going ahead with a “reckless deal” with the group. A good deal, the statement argued, “means increasing the military pressure and stopping humanitarian aid that strengthens Hamas.”

Amiram Levin speaks on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Amiram Levin, a major general in the reserves, warned in his speech at the Hostages Square rally that unless the hostages are retrieved — a prospect he said would be a “moral victory” — then Israeli troops would stop risking their lives on the battlefield.

According to the IDF, 577 soldiers have died in the war that began on October 7. Of those fatalities, 238 died after the Israeli incursion into Gaza. The other 339 military fatalities fell on October 7, many of them while risking their lives to fend off the advancing terrorists, most of whom were killed.

Close to 30,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza after October 7 as a result of the fighting there, according to unverified statistics provided by the Hamas-run health ministry. The statistics figures do not differentiate between civilians and terrorists, who the IDF says says it has killed over 12,000 in Gaza along with 1,000 in Israel on October 7.

“We’ll need a strong army and thousands of fighters willing to risk their lives on the battlefield,” said Levin, a former commander of IDF Northern Command and deputy head of the Mossad. “But without a moral victory, it won’t happen.”

Demonstrators at a Jerusalem rally hold signs with names and faces of Hamas-held hostages on February 24, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem speaker pleads: Don’t blame the families of the hostages

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum also held a rally in Jerusalem on Saturday night that was attended by hundreds of people. One of the speakers was Yael Adar, whose son Tamir was taken hostage by Hamas and later announced to have been killed on October 7. She pleaded to receive his body for burial. “You must return my murdered son along with all who have been killed and allow us, the devastated families, to rebuild ourselves,” she urged the government.

She also accused the government of using residents of Gaza border communities as “human shields.”

“We believed that you [those in government] were protecting us, but you turned all of us into a human shield,” she said. “While they built tunnels, you hoped that all would be well and you told us that we were protected, but you abandoned us.”

“You started this war for the hostages, so why are you not willing to stop it to return them home?” she continued.

Mai Alvini, the grandson of Hamas-held hostage Haim Peri, speaks to a Jerusalem rally for the hostages on February 24, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Mai Alvini, the grandson of 79-year-old Hamas hostage Chaim Peri, accused Smotrich of abandoning the hostages and “blaming the families of hostages.”

“I’m sorry they kidnapped my grandfather,” he said bitterly. “I didn’t mean it, it won’t happen again.”

He charged Smotrich with prioritizing the construction of “thousands of new housing units in Maale Adumim, Efrat and Kedar before reestablishing the kibbutzim of the Gaza envelope,” referring to plans announced by the far-right minister after a deadly terror shooting on Thursday.

Devorah Leshem, the grandmother of 23-year-old Romi Gonen who was kidnapped from the Supernova rave on October 7, appealed to Netanyahu in her speech, calling for the return of the hostages after 141 days of Hamas captivity.

“My granddaughter planned to travel the world for four years, she didn’t plan to travel in Gaza,” she said.

Organizers recited the names of the hostages who remain in Hamas captivity, vowing not to abandon them.

Michael Rapaport speaks on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Back at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, one of the final speakers was Michael Rapaport, the Jewish-American actor from New York, who has attended multiple rallies and vocally championed the cause of the hostages in the United States.

“It makes me sick that you have had to beg the people whose job it is to bring them home,” he told the crowd about the hostages. “It makes me sick that the UN, the Red Cross, the Hague, they have abandoned you. They should be ashamed of themselves. You all deserve better.”

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