ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Analysis

Hostages’ relatives gain political clout as war reshapes electoral landscape

Active figures in hostage protests emerge as potential Knesset candidates, with left-wing parties likely natural fit for relatives of captives who mainly come from kibbutzim

Israelis with family members held abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since October 7 attend a Knesset National Security Committee hearing, November 20, 2023. At center is Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat is one of the hostages. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Israelis whose family members are held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since October 7 attend a Knesset National Security Committee hearing, November 20, 2023. At center is Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat is one of the hostages. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When pollsters asked a representative sample of the Israeli public in January to name anyone they would like to see entering politics, relatives of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza were among the names that cropped up most often.

The previously unreported survey, seen by Reuters, shows how the families’ campaign for a deal to free their loved ones has struck a chord with Israelis who would like to see political change, at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity is at rock bottom.

The results are part of a wider transformation of Israel’s political landscape precipitated by Hamas’s October 7 massacre and is likely to accelerate when the most intense phase of the Gaza war ends and a reckoning for the security failures of that day begins.

“The hostage protests are a pivotal point for other types of protests against the government to emerge,” said Nimrod Nir, a political psychologist at the Truman Research Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which conducted the survey.

One of the names mentioned by respondents was Gil Dickmann, a cousin of hostage Carmel Gat and an active figure in the Hostages and Missing Families Forum campaign group.

Another was Jonathan Shamriz, whose brother Alon was one of three hostages mistakenly shot dead by Israeli forces in Gaza on December 15, and who has become an outspoken government critic.

File: Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis kidnapped and held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

“I will do what I need to in order to fix this country. If that means going into politics, then I’ll have to see,” he told Reuters.

Some respondents did not mention names but wrote variants of “hostage families,” reflecting the impact of the Forum itself and its “Bring Them Home Now” campaign.

The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 onslaught in Israel, during which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel and killed nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took 253 hostages while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,365 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry. The figure cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed some 10,000 Hamas terrorists in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Left-right divide

The Forum and most individual relatives of hostages have been trying to avoid partisan politics or confrontation with the right-wing coalition government while the lives of their loved ones hang in the balance.

“Our struggle right now is not a political struggle,” said Elad Or, whose brother Dror is in Hamas captivity. Dror’s wife Yonat was killed. The couple’s two teenage children were held hostage until November 25 when they were freed during a brief truce.

Mirroring the restraint of the families, who inspire huge public empathy, Netanyahu has mostly avoided overtly criticizing them, although frustrations have mounted on both sides.

Protests by relatives outside his house have irked Netanyahu. He lashed out during a January 27 news conference that such actions “only strengthen the demands of Hamas.”

During the weeklong truce in late November, Hamas freed 105 Israeli and foreign hostages and Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners.

File: A Red Cross convoy carrying Israeli hostages heads to Egypt from the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Nov. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Since then, the issue of what price Israel should pay to get remaining hostages back, and how to balance that goal against its other stated war objective, to destroy Hamas, has become increasingly polarizing.

Negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a ceasefire and hostage deal, mediated by Qatar and Egypt and backed by the United States, are ongoing but the outcome is uncertain.

Netanyahu, who faces rifts within his fractious coalition over terms for a hostage deal, said on Sunday Israel was not ready to agree to “any price.”

Polls by the Truman Institute and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) show a sharp left-right split on the issue.

On the left, support for a deal with Hamas involving concessions such as a ceasefire or prisoner release in exchange for the hostages is much higher, while on the right opposition to such a deal and support for continuing the war are stronger.

Political scientist Tamar Hermann of the IDI said solidarity with the hostage families was blending with the broader anti-government sentiment, partly rooted in a huge prewar protest movement against Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Bnei David military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, January 30, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Kibbutz factor

A large proportion of the Gaza captives come from kibbutzim, communities that have deep historical links with the political left. New or existing left-wing parties could be a natural fit for any hostage relatives who did decide to go into politics.

Asked whether his party wanted to recruit any of them, Tomer Reznik, secretary-general of left-wing Meretz, said it was reorganizing itself for the next election and part of this would be finding new candidates “relevant to the current situation.”

Conversely, the hostage families are seen as opponents by some on the right, especially on the ultra-nationalist far right, which has sway over Netanyahu because it is part of his fragile coalition. Two far-right ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, are implacably opposed to a deal with Hamas and could bring down his government at any moment.

File: Eliyahu Libman, witness in the trial against Elior Azaria, seen during a court hearing at a military court in Jaffa, August 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some of Netanyahu’s hard-right supporters in politics and media portray the hostage families as leftists abusing public sympathy to further their anti-government agenda, said political scientist Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University.

One tactic, he said, was to amplify the voices of a small number of far-right hostage relatives who oppose any deal with Hamas, such as Eliyahu Libman, a settler from Kiryat Arba in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, whose son Elyakim is held hostage.

Libman has argued that Israel must destroy Hamas, no matter the cost, so that no Israeli is harmed by it in the future.

“My son is the most important thing in the world to me but the State of Israel is also the most important thing in the world to me,” he told Channel 13 news.

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