Hostage families head to Jerusalem for rally after 4-day march; protesters urge elections

Crowd expected to swell as procession calling for a deal reaches the capital; anti-government rallies to be held week after mounted police, water cannons deployed against protesters

Hostages' families and their supporters on the final leg of a four-day march to Jerusalem, March 2, 2024 (Yair Palti/Hostages' Families Forum)

The families of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by terrorists were set to arrive in Jerusalem for a rally early on Saturday evening at the conclusion of a four-day march to the capital, as anti-government protesters were readying to demonstrate in Tel Aviv and nationwide, a week after scenes of chaos when police deployed mounted officers and water cannons on the crowd.

The hostages’ families and friends set off on a four-day march from Kibbutz Re’im to Jerusalem on Wednesday morning, under the banner of “United to free the hostages.”

On Friday, the families — joined by war cabinet minister Benny Gantz — held a “stretcher march” to honor the soldiers held captive in Gaza.

Organizers said some 10,000 people joined that stage of the march over the course of the day.

The crowd numbers are expected to swell as the procession reaches Jerusalem on Saturday

After spending Friday night at Kibbutz Tzora, the participants began the final stretch of the march early on Saturday afternoon, and were heading up Route 1 toward the capital, aiming to march into Jerusalem in time for a rally at the city’s Paris Square on Saturday evening.

Minister Benny Gantz joins a march by the families of hostages held in Gaza toward Jerusalem on March 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The group will hold a rally en route in Mevaseret Zion, where they will be addressed by Fernando Marman, one of two hostages rescued last month in a complex operation in Gaza’s Rafah.

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.

US President Joe Biden had said at the beginning of this week that he expected a deal by Monday for a six-week halt in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, but has steadily walked back the timeline as mediators, including the US, Egypt and Qatar, continue with efforts to ink an agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening expressed pessimism that a deal could be sealed, accusing Hamas of continuing to stonewall Israel rather than make a good faith effort at compromise. According to an unsourced report by Channel 12 news this week, some officials have accused Netanyahu of trying to torpedo the nascent hostage deal in order to appease the far-right elements of his government.

Israel and Hamas, which both had delegations in Qatar this week to hammer out details of a potential 40-day truce, have said there is still a big gulf between them, and the Qatari mediators say there is no breakthrough yet.

A woman holds a placard bearing the image of 19-year-old Israeli hostage Karina Ariev as relatives and supporters of Israeli captives held in Gaza since October 7 hold placards and wave US national flags during a demonstration in front of the Branch Office of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

According to an Axios report Friday, Israel has indicated that it will not participate in further talks until it receives a list of living hostages still held by Hamas.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza, after 105 civilians were released during a weeklong truce in late November. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of at least 31 of the captives.

Four hostages were released prior to that, three have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. One more person, Bilha Yinon, has been listed as missing since October 7, and her fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Election calls after violence

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: “Israel needs elections, take to the streets!”

Rallies will also be held in cities and towns nationwide, and protesters will also gather on bridges across the country.

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the current Israeli government, in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Speakers at the main rally in Tel Aviv will include: Hadas Eilon Carmi, whose brother Tal Eilon was the commander of the security team at Kibbutz Kfar Aza and was killed defending the community on October 7; former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, who is set to run in the Labor party leadership primaries; Or Szneiberg, a reservist who was seriously injured while fighting in Gaza; and Moran Michel, who was injured at the last Saturday protest.

Amid chaotic scenes last week, mounted police and water cannons were deployed against protesters in Tel Aviv.

In one incident caught on camera, a mounted officer was seen whipping a protester on the head with the reins of his horse, causing the man to fall to the ground.

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)

Twenty-one people were arrested during the demonstration, police said. Several protesters were injured and required medical attention.

As the demonstration rolled through the streets, it blended with participants at a parallel rally held on behalf of hostages held by terror groups in the Gaza Strip. In scenes that jarred the public, some family members of hostages were hosed by a water cannon amid the mayhem.

Police said protesters ignored officers’ warnings, blocked roads and clashed with officers “despite repeated negotiation efforts.”

The clashes between police and protesters were among the most intense since war broke out on October 7.

Violent police tactics drew severe criticism during the anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations that rocked the country for much of 2023.

Activists laid some of the blame at the doorstep of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who repeatedly pushed police to act aggressively against protesters.

Protesters hold national flags and placards during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Demonstrations against the coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul ceased with the outbreak of war, but protests have ramped up in recent weeks as anti-government activists have increasingly demanded new elections over the failures that enabled the devastating Hamas attack.

Calls for an election have grown also amid dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the war, with repeated polls showing Netanyahu losing his majority in the Knesset if a vote was to be held today. Netanyahu claimed on Thursday that Israel’s enemies want to see elections mid-war because the process would be so divisive, and intimated that any politicians seeking to oust his government from without or within were therefore siding with the enemy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2024. (Nimrod Klikman/POOL via Flash90)

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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