'We only receive dead bodies'

Families rally for hostage deal, say IDF pressure failed, after mistaken killings

Relatives at weekly demonstration in Tel Aviv call for talks, say they feel like they are playing Russian roulette with so many captives dead; dueling protests face off nearby

A rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The families of hostages held in Gaza and supporters rallied Saturday night for a deal to secure the release of their loved ones, after on Friday the IDF mistakenly killed three hostages who had managed to escape captivity.

As the nation has reeled from the tragic turn of events, calls have risen for Israel to halt the fighting and negotiate the freedom of the over 100 hostages still believed held by Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip.

“We only receive dead bodies. We want you to stop the fight and start negotiations,” Noam Perry, daughter of hostage Haim Perry, said at the Tel Aviv rally organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

The Israeli army has said the three hostages, Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Shamriz, were killed by troops on Friday morning in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood. The three were shot while walking toward the soldiers despite carrying a white flag and yelling for help in Hebrew.

The news of the killing sparked protests in Israel, with some relatives of hostages fearing their loved ones could be next. Army chief Herzi Halevi said Saturday that the army would make changes to ensure the incident does not happen again.

Unlike previous rallies held at the recently renamed Hostages Square outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum, the stage of Saturday’s demonstration was turned to face the Kirya military headquarters nearby, a move meant to highlight the organizers’ demands of the government.

As thousands gathered at the square, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz held a press conference at which they rejected calls to end the fighting in order to reach a deal for the hostages, describing it as a “capitulation.” Netanyahu said the combination of the ground offensive in Gaza and diplomacy was the only means to pressure Hamas into further hostage releases.

Freed hostage Yocheved Lifshitz attends a rally calling for the release of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Gantz, Gallant, Netanyahu, we elected you, now heed our calls and the tremendous suffering of the hostages and approve the framework for a deal right now,” said speaker Shir Segal, whose father Keith remains in captivity. Her mother Aviva was released last month along with over 100 civilians as part of a temporary truce deal.

The crowd answered Segal with chants of “now.”

Amit Ashkenazi noted the “immense pain” that Kibbutz Kfar Aza is feeling after Israeli troops mistakenly killed the three hostages in Gaza, two of whom were from there.

“The war’s objective is to bring them back alive but three hostages, two from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, are returning in coffins,” she said. She added that this shows the need for a “deal right now.” Her sister is presumed hostage Doron Steinbrecher.

Hamas leaders have publicly said they will only free hostages in exchange for a permanent ceasefire, though reports over the weekend indicated talks for another truce to release more hostages may be in the offing.

Israeli leaders insist that military action is putting pressure on Hamas for a deal, rejecting calls for a ceasefire that leaves Hamas intact.

Families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and supporters attend a rally calling for their return, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, December 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The terror group, which rules Gaza, sent thousands of gunmen into Israel on October 7, who killed around 1,200 people and took some 240 hostages, mostly civilians.

It is believed that 128 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 21 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

The rally began with the thousands in attendance observing a moment of silence for the three hostages mistakenly killed by Israeli troops, and for Inbar Heiman, whose killing in Hamas captivity was confirmed earlier this evening after she was presumed to have been abducted to Gaza on October 7.

“We feel like we’re in a Russian roulette game; who will be next in line to be told the death of their loved one,” said Ruby Chen, father of 19-year-old soldier Itai, who is among the captives.

“They explained to us first that the ground operation would bring back the abductees,” he said. “It doesn’t work. Because since then, abductees have been seen returning, but not so much alive. It’s time to change this assumption.”

Raz Ben-Ami, a released hostage whose husband is still captive in Gaza, and other families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference at “Hostages Square,” outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, December 16, 2023.(Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv at the start of the weekly rally, released hostage Raz Ben-Ami called on the government to initiate a new agreement.

“This is an emergency,” said Ben-Ami, who was released by Hamas over two weeks ago as part of a temporary truce deal. Her husband, Ohad, is still a hostage.

“I won’t give up until he’s here,” she said.

Ben-Ami added that she warned members of the government that the ground offensive in Gaza was putting hostages at risk.

“Unfortunately we were right,” she said, “A military operation alone will not save the lives of the hostages.”

“You promised you’d return the hostages alive. What are you waiting for?” she added.

Noam Peri, whose father Chaim Peri, 79, is held hostage in Gaza, speaks as the families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference at “Hostages Square,” outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

At the same time, speakers at Saturday night’s rally by the hostage families issued messages of support for the IDF, its commanders and its soldiers in Gaza, including those directly involved in killing the three hostages on Friday.

“In my name, in the name of my family and all the families, I want to send an embrace and strength to all the IDF commanders and soldiers, including those who were killed in the terrible tragedy that we learned about yesterday,” said Noam Peri, whose father Chaim, 79, was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz.

“We want you to know that we are behind you,” she added. “We want you to hold your heads high. The entire State of Israel and all of us are with you.”

Ruby Chen, father of Israeli hostage Itay, held in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas onslaught, lifts an hourglass as he delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on December 16, 2023. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Following the rally on Saturday night, families of the hostages planned to camp out opposite an entrance to the Kirya compound, a spokesman for the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum said.

“We want to remind the cabinet that we are not against them, we are with them. But they need to be with us too,” said a spokesman for the forum.

The announcement came as Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, an observer in the war cabinet, prepared to meet with the families, who have complained that decision-makers are not accessible enough.

During the rally, chants of “shame” began to spread through the crowd, echoing a protest slogan heard at massive demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial overhaul held across Israel in the nine months that preceded the Hamas onslaught on October 7.

However, an organizer shushed the chant, noting that the group had taken pains to steer clear of politics.

“Save it for different roads and junctions at a different time,” he said. “There is no place for politics here. From now on shout ‘now’ instead of ‘shame.’”

Israeli right wing protesters demonstrate near the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on December 16, 2023, close to another demonstration in support of a second hostage deal. The sign in the image reads “Victory, Occupation, Settlement.” (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The societal divides of the judicial protests faded following the Hamas attacks. But dueling demonstrations for and against a ceasefire with Hamas that faced off in front of the Begin Road entrance of the Kirya Saturday night underlined signs of dissipating unity.

Members from the two rallies traded insults, in scenes reminiscent of the judicial protests. One woman: “What you’re doing is at the expense of the lives of the hostages,” while another shouted, “Have you no shame, you swine!”

Police separated the two groups, but one of the women from the demonstration in support of a hostage deal approached the other and cried out, “Would you also say nothing if your daughter were held hostage?”

Eyal Lahiani, a rival demonstrator from Beit Shemesh, shot back: “I support freeing the hostages but only through military action.”

Most Popular
read more: