‘Choose the lives of our loved ones’: Protesters to rally for hostages, urge elections

Families of those held in Gaza by terrorists plead for deal that would see their release; anti-government protests return to Tel Aviv’s Democracy Square: ‘It’s time to wake up’

Women hold torches during a march demanding the immediate release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Women hold torches during a march demanding the immediate release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Two sets of protests were scheduled to get underway nationwide Saturday evening — the first calling for an immediate deal to release the hostages held in Gaza, while the second set of demonstrations, demanding elections, will see the return of protests to Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum urged the public to join its main weekly rally at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square at 7:30 p.m. under the slogan: “Choose the hostages.”

The rally comes the day after Gaza truce talks got underway in Paris in what appeared to be the most serious push in weeks to temporarily halt the fighting in the Hamas-run enclave and see hostages released.

“The most important choice is for the lives of our loved ones!” the forum said in the announcement of the protest.

Speakers at the main rally were set to include Shahar Levy, the son of Eitan Levy, whose body is held by Hamas; Nadav Libman, whose cousin Elyakim Libman is held hostage in Gaza; Yael Adar, the mother of Tamir Adar, whose body is held by Hamas; and Eyal Eshel, whose daughter Roni Eshel was killed on October 7 at her base while serving as a lookout soldier.

In addition, the rally will be addressed by US actor Michael Rapaport.

Protesters attempt to block a street during a demonstration to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas terrorists into the Gaza Strip during the Oct. 7th attack, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

The families of hostages say that time is running out for their loved ones, who are being held in Gaza after they were kidnapped amid widespread brutality and sexual assault on October 7 as terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in southern Israel.

Diplomatic efforts for a deal have also taken on fresh urgency ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 and is regularly a time of increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly surrounding holy sites including Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Egypt has also been anxious to forestall a possible Israeli offensive in Rafah amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, fearing it could push hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into its territory.

Families of hostages held in Gaza protest outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 22, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As the meetings on a potential temporary ceasefire and hostage deal were held in Paris, Hebrew media reports Friday evening cited cautious optimism by Israeli officials, though they stressed that an agreement was not imminent.

Friday afternoon saw families of some of the hostages held in Gaza block Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway with a Shabbat dinner table, urging a deal to release their loved ones.

Family members held Shabbat prayers and set up empty chairs representing those who remain captive inside the Strip.

In a photo provided by activists, hostages’ families set up a Shabbat dinner table and urge an immediate deal to release their loved ones from captivity, blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, February 23, 2024. (Amir Terkel)

It is believed that 130 of the 253 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

Hamas has also been holding the bodies of two fallen IDF soldiers since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Nationwide election calls

Meanwhile, at around the same time on Saturday evening as the supporters of the hostage families hold their rally, anti-government protesters are set to gather across the country, including at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, the focus of last year’s mass protests against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul.

The protest will begin with a march from Tel Aviv’s Habima Square at 6:30 p.m. before the main rally begins at 7 p.m. under the slogan: “It’s time to wake up, elections now.”

Speakers will include Ellay Hogeg Golan, who was seriously injured along with her husband and their 18-month-old daughter on October 7 when terrorists set fire to their Kfar Aza home; Or Szneiberg, a reservist who was seriously injured while fighting in Gaza; Yael Yechieli, the founder of the 5050 equality forum; and former defense minister and IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon.

While there have been weekly Saturday night protests in Tel Aviv and around the country in recent weeks, they have not been held with a central stage at “Democracy Square” at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, in Tel Aviv, on February 17, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In addition to the Saturday night protests, demonstrators have been gathering at the homes of ministers and lawmakers on Thursday evenings for protests calling for the end of the current government, led by groups that spearheaded protests against the hardline coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul last year.

Calls for an election have grown amid intense criticism of the government for the failures that enabled the devastating October 7 attacks, as well as dissatisfaction with its handling of the war, with repeated polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu losing his majority in the Knesset if a vote was to be held today.

Saturday evening is expected to be the largest anti-government protest since the start of the war, sparked by the Hamas onslaught.

Netanyahu has faced criticism for his refusal to take responsibility for  October 7, while virtually all other military and civilian leaders who had a hand in events have done so. Many top officials are also expected to resign once the war concludes, while Netanyahu has signaled he has no such intention.

The prime minister has also pushed back against investigating the failures that enabled the Hamas attack so long as the war continues.

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