A markedly tense meeting was held Tuesday between a group of recently released hostages, as well as family members of those still held in Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the other members of the war cabinet.
Those who were present at the gathering in Herzliya said afterward that voices were raised and that Netanyahu did not engage directly with any of their demands, largely reading remarks off of a piece of paper, angering those present. In recordings, some attendees could be heard screaming at the prime minister to resign.
In leaked excerpts from the meeting, Netanyahu could be heard telling the families “there is no possibility right now to bring everyone home. Can anyone really imagine that if that was an option, anyone would refuse it?” — a statement met with outrage from many. Some even said they got up and left the meeting midway through.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that Netanyahu also told those gathered: “Hamas has demands that even you would not accept.”
In a recording published by Kan, Netanyahu could be heard saying, “The one who stopped the [hostage release] deal was the other side, not us!” as some in the audience accused him of lying. He responded: “What I’m saying are clear facts. I’m telling you things; I respect you too much. I have heard you, the stirring of your hearts.”
Under a weeklong truce deal that expired on Friday, 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino. Earlier, four hostages were released and one was rescued, and at least three bodies have been recovered. It is believed that 138 hostages remain in Gaza, including around 20 women.
Reuven Yablonka, the father of hostage Hanan Yablonka, told Maariv that “there was chaos and yelling. They shouted that they want all the hostages to come home. The female [freed] captives talked about unpleasant things that happened to them; one of them was completely exhausted.”
In an excerpt broadcast on Channel 12, the mother of a hostage shouted at Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: “I’m not prepared to sacrifice my son for your career or for those of any of the notables here. Really not. My son did not volunteer to die for the homeland. He was a civilian abducted from his home and his bed… Promise me that you’ll get back my son and all the other hostages, alive.”
In response, Gallant promised to make “every effort” to do so but appeared to indicate that even an “all for all” exchange — of all the hostages for all Palestinian security prisoners — would not be sufficient for Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar.
Simcha Goldin, the father of Hadar Goldin, a fallen IDF soldier whose body has been held by Hamas since 2014, was said to have shouted at the ministers: “How many more Hadar Goldins and Ron Arads will there be?!” — a reference to his son and to another IDF soldier who has been considered MIA since 1986 in Lebanon.
Aviva Siegel, who was freed from Hamas captivity last week and whose husband Keith, a US citizen, is still a hostage, said during the meeting that “airstrikes exploded above us and the Hamas operatives just kept sleeping. Your airstrikes don’t bother them.” Reports also quoted her as saying that women hostages are “being touched.”
Channel 12 quoted Siegel telling Netanyahu that her husband Keith “is not well, they broke his ribs and he can barely sit or eat. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat there because I couldn’t. We kept moving from place to place. I thought I would be blown up every second.”
Quotes attributed to unnamed hostages provided by the umbrella family group include that “they dressed us in hijabs and head coverings so that Israel wouldn’t distinguish us from them.”
Another was said to tell the ministers: “I was dehydrated for 51 days, they didn’t give us water, they are inhumane.”
According to Ynet, the freed hostages who attended the meeting also included Raz Ben Ami, whose husband Ohad is still held captive; Sharon Cunio, whose husband David and other family members are also still hostages; Yarden Roman-Gat, whose sister-in-law Carmel Gat is held in Gaza; and Irena Tati and her daughter Yelena Trufanov, whose son Sasha is still a hostage.
In a recording aired by Channel 12, Trufanov told the ministers that “I was there, I know how hard it is — it’s hard in captivity every day… you don’t know,” she said, describing airstrikes around where they were being held. “You have no idea what you’re doing there… and I know the conditions they’re holding the men in are worse, worse than for the women.”
Ronen Tzur, the director of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, said after the gathering that “this was an unusual meeting. Members of the cabinet heard for the first time from freed female hostages describing the difficult things that are going on in the tunnels, including sexual abuse, and the fact that the airstrikes are happening very close to where the captives are being held.”
Cunio told the war cabinet ministers, in quotes provided by Channel 12, that she felt “that you have no idea what’s even going on there at all. You claim that you have intelligence but the fact is we were bombed. My husband was separated from me three days before I was freed. My daughters keep asking me ‘Where’s Dad?’ and I have to tell them that the bad people don’t want to release him.”
“You are putting politics above returning the hostages,” Cunio was quoted as saying, noting that she watched hostages die next to her. “You think the men are strong? It’s too hard for them. Bring them all home… don’t wait another month or another year.”
Israel has indicated that it believes at least 15 of the hostages are dead.
In a partial recording aired by Channel 12 meeting, a family member can be heard asking Netanyahu why he is not wearing the dog-tag necklaces the forum has been selling, which call for the release of all the hostages. The prime minister replies, “It’s next to my bed,” and someone yells out, “No, around your neck!”
Sharon Sharabi, whose brothers Eli and Yossi are both still held hostage in Gaza, was quoted by Channel 13 news after leaving the meeting as saying “the prime minister and the cabinet understand that [the hostages] can’t stay another moment there. The situation for the hostages is only getting worse.”
According to Army Radio, Sharabi said that ministers promised the family members “that all of their decisions moving forward will be made with the consideration that the hostages are in immediate life-threatening danger.”
Danny Miran, the father of hostage Omri Miran, told Maariv that the entire meeting was chaotic.
“The meeting was a model of how the country is run. We were invited for 3 p.m.; they showed up only at 3:45 p.m. They let us get mad and fight amongst ourselves — I left in the middle, it’s not acceptable.”
Tuesday’s meeting came after the family members of the hostages demanded on Monday that they be granted an audience with the war cabinet, saying they had been asking to meet for several days.
Netanyahu denied the accusations that the cabinet is ignoring the hostages’ families, and said a meeting with them had already been set for later in the week, but that he would move it up to Tuesday.
Netanyahu first met with the families of hostages on October 15 amid harsh criticism by relatives at the time that the government had forsaken those being held in Gaza.
Defense Minister Gallant has held weekly meetings with the families. On Sunday, he told them that military pressure is pushing Hamas to release more hostages.