One week ago, Yael Lotem was so worried about her daughter Hagar and her three grandchildren that even mundane acts would trigger her concern.
“I’m having a cup of coffee here and, meanwhile, do they even have water?” she said Saturday at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, describing a thought pattern that tormented her for weeks.
Lotem, 63, was attending one of the weekly rallies that have been held there since Hamas terrorists took some 240 hostages during their onslaught in southern Israel on October 7.
For the first time since the rallies started, on Saturday no one from Lotem’s family was being held hostage anymore. Her daughter Hagar and Hagar’s children were released on November 26 and reunited with their father, Avichai, a survivor of the slaughter of more than 70 people in their kibbutz, Kfar Aza.
“On the one hand, there’s massive relief, but at the same time also tremendous sorrow for what families with loved ones still in Gaza are going through,” Lotem, who has four children and who lives in Kibbutz Gevulot near Kfar Aza, told The Times of Israel on Saturday night.
Many of the thousands of participants in the rally shared a similar ambivalence, punctuated by the termination of the weeklong truce that had facilitated a series of exchanges in which 105 hostages, including 81 Israelis, were freed from Gaza in return for the release of 210 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
“I’m terrified. My brother is still here and his life hangs in the balance,” said Merav Svirsky, whose brother Itay is believed to be held hostage and whose parents, Orit and Rafi, were murdered in Kibbutz Be’eri.
“I don’t feel I know they did everything possible before they resumed fighting. Every day that he’s there, the threat to his life increases,” Svirsky, an artist and mother of two, added.
Some 125 Israeli citizens are believed to still be hostages in Gaza, and some of their relatives are promoting a second exchange. Some of those released spoke at the rally, bringing a sense of relief and hope to many of their listeners.
Raz Ben-Ami, who was abducted from Be’eri on October 7, thanked the audience in a filmed message, drawing applause when he said, “Thank you for giving me life.”
Yelena Trufanova, another freed hostage, spoke on stage next to her mother Irena Tati. “Thank you. Without you I wouldn’t be here. We need to get my Sasha back,” she said of her son, Alexander, who is still presumed to be held hostage.
The rally also featured a video address by Yaffa Adar, a grandmother of eight from Be’eri who was released on November 24. “I am a voice for many mothers and grandmothers asking, ‘Release the children now.’ I want to see them now, not when I’m in a coffin.”
Hadas Calderon, whose 16-year-old daughter Sahar and 12-year-old son Erez were released on November 27, spoke of the comfort of having them back. “I can kiss my children tonight,” she said on stage at the rally, bringing tears to the eyes of many.
But her husband Ofer is still held hostage, ”and we will never give up on him or any other hostages,” she said.
At the rally, organized by a group of families called the Hostage Family Forum, “the hostages who have returned had a clear message: ‘Time is running out. Free them all now,’” a spokesperson for the Forum wrote on Facebook Saturday.
Noam Tibon, a major general in the IDF reserves who rescued his son and his son’s family from terrorists in Nahal Oz, said at the rally that Israel’s war on Hamas will be considered a failed effort unless all remaining hostages are freed.
“All other objectives come second,” Tibon told the crowd.
“Unless we bring back all the hostages, we will not win the war on Hamas. And we want to win the war on Hamas.”
On October 7, Tibon broke into the besieged kibbutz with several comrades, extracted his son Amir and his family from their homes and helped rescue several other people while exchanging fire with terrorists.
Tibon expressed hope for another ceasefire and exchange. The weeklong lull in the fighting, he said, showed “that the Israel Defense Forces can stop fighting and resume it, in the interest of retrieving our hostages.”
He added: “We must do everything possible to bring them back. This is human life. You can’t put a price on that.”
But some parents of hostages disagreed with that approach.
The rally “seriously undermines national security,” said Zvika Mor, a father of eight from the settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron in the southern West Bank.
His 23-year-old son Eitan was abducted on October 7 while working as a security guard at the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im.
The release of 210 Palestinian prisoners to the West Bank and East Jerusalem “will lead to the next massive terrorist attack on Israel, just as the release of 1,027 terrorists for Gilad Shalit in 2011 led to this one,” Mor said, recalling a previous exchange that was widely criticized as lopsided and included the release from prison of Yahya Sinwar, a terrorist who is now Hamas’s leader in Gaza.
“We arrive at the deal willing to pay whatever it takes. We view this as defeatism,” added Mor.
He is a member of Tikvah, a forum of families with loved ones being held hostage in Gaza that opposed the recent series of exchanges, and would object to future ones if they’re held on similar terms, Mor said.
“This deal just raised the price for the remaining hostages,” added Mor.
The Tikvah forum includes also Kiryat Arba Mayor Eliyahu Libman, whose son Elyakim is believed to be held hostage, and Ditzah Or, whose son Avinatan is also thought to be held captive in Gaza.
Mor also said that he was “filled with happiness for each of the people who made is back from there“ and that he meant no disrespect or ill will toward other families of hostages.
Tikvah parents are not opposed in principle to an exchange with Hamas, he said.
“To me, ‘deal’ is not a dirty word. I don’t oppose making one in principle. But it needs to be a deal where we emerge on top,” said Mor, who on Saturday spoke about the subject before some 80 people in the town of Meitar near Beersheba.
Hundreds heard Libman making similar points at a synagogue in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood Saturday night.
Just as the rally Saturday on Hostages Square ended, a few dozen people left that event and began marching around the Kirya military base, the nerve center of the Israeli defense establishment, which is situated right across the street.
The marchers, some of them beating drums, chanted “all of them now,” and demanded that the security cabinet hold additional meetings with relatives of the hostages.
Many were wearing pink, a color widely associated with the wave of protests earlier this year against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“This march is about the hostages, not about politics,” said Noam Malul, who attended the walk Saturday. “But plenty of people from the protest movement, including me, have very little faith in this government.
“So we come from a very skeptical place and we need to show the government the right way forward.”
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