Latest hostage rally demanding deal with Hamas takes on stronger political tones

Organizers and speakers at weekly protest in Tel Aviv say faith in the government needs restoring, accuse Netanyahu of being guided by desire to avoid elections

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

Speeches at the weekly Tel Aviv rally demanding the return of hostages held in Gaza took a more strongly political tone than ever before on Saturday night, with speakers accusing the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being indifferent to the hostages’ fate and Netanyahu of being guided by personal considerations and stalling to avoid investigations and elections.

At previous rallies at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, organizers and speakers had adhered to a nonpartisan line, drawing a clear distinction between their movement, which is centered on retrieving hostages in Gaza, and anti-government protests that took place elsewhere at the same time.

This departure from previous policy was evident at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum’s weekly rally, its 17th, which thousands attended. Emcee Rami Beja opened it, calling retrieving the hostages “the only way to restore confidence in the country’s leadership.”

At previous rallies, he had urged participants to refrain from “engaging in politics.”

Ronen Manelis, a reserves brigadier general and former Israel Defense Forces spokesperson, elaborated on his lack of confidence in that leadership.

“The discourse taking place in recent days, the leaks, the manipulations, the lack of leadership, the inability to make difficult decisions, is leading to some difficult questions about the loss of commitment by the state to its citizens; [about whether] considerations outside this commitment are influencing the decision-making, or the absence thereof,” Manelis said.

Former IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis speaks in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

The Forum is pushing Netanyahu to accept a framework for a prisoner swap with Hamas, which is believed to be holding 132 hostages abducted by its terrorists from inside Israel on October 7.

Manelis in his speech went further, accusing the government of conducting its hostage retrieval policy with the goal of avoiding elections.

“The Israeli leadership, the war cabinet, its head, are afraid to make the decision” to agree to a prisoner swap, said Manelis, “because they fear a temporary ceasefire would lead to criticism, to investigations, and would trigger the very necessary process of going back to the voters to renew their confidence in their leaders.”

Avi Benayahu speaks on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Avi Benayahu, another former Israel Defense Forces spokesperson and reserves brigadier general, addressed Netanyahu and his coalition partners directly in his speech, accusing them of “abandonment, neglect, arrogance, and building up Hamas.” He called National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, far-right leaders who have insisted that Israel not release large numbers of terrorists in a hostage deal, “radicals who want to take us toward chaos.”

Benayahu, a longtime critic of Netanyahu, called on the prime minister to accept “a very painful, very difficult” deal with Hamas to retrieve the hostages. “Hamas is encircled, it’s not going anywhere,” Benayahu said in defense of a truce. “But the hostages are going to be lost.”

Israeli mounted police deploy during a rally calling for the government’s resignation, early elections, and the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Palestinian Hamas terrorists, in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2024. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Not far from Hostages Square, several thousand people protested against the government on Kaplan Street Participants, including some relatives of hostages, intermittently blocked traffic on the adjacent Ayalon Highway and Ibn Gvirol streets amid clashes with police.

Officers on horseback and others were filmed driving back protesters and detaining some.

Standing behind a flaming “HELP” slogan, families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza block Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway, February 3, 2024 (Barak Dor)

The Kaplan Street anti-government protest and another such rally at Habima Square took place for the sixth consecutive week. Footage from those protest protests showed participants holding up signs and chanting slogans calling for Netanyahu’s resignation.

The rally on Hostages Square featured multiple speeches by relatives of hostages who called on the government to retrieve the hostages, or “bring them back now in a deal,” as Carmit Palti-Katzir, whose brother Elad was abducted from Nir Oz, said.

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

The past 120 days have been “a living hell” for her family, Palti-Katzir said, and she shared her dilemmas about explaining to her 3-year-old son where his uncle is.

Palti-Katzir then listed several coalition figures and confidants of Netanyahu – Defense Minister Yoav Gallant; Minister Benny Gantz; former ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and Shas lawmaker Aryeh Deri – as well as Netanyahu himself: “I want to tell them in the most direct manner: Don’t allow partisan consideration to kill them [the hostages]. They are the flesh of our flesh and yours, too. They are not the silver platter on which the war has been handed to you. And to those who incite and call the deal in progress ‘reckless,’ we’ll say clearly: A reckless deal is a deal that abandons citizens in Gaza.”

“The Silver Platter” is an iconic poem published in 1947 by Nathan Alterman, which describes Jewish war casualties as sacrifices that are necessary for achieving statehood. Ben Gvir has warned he would bring down the government if it agrees a “reckless” deal with Hamas.

Some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists invaded Israel on October 7, murdering some 1,200 people and abducting another 253. More than 100 hostages were released in a prisoner swap that took place during a weeklong ceasefire in November.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says at least 27,000 people have died in the Gaza Strip as a result of the IDF’s military campaign to topple the terrorists’ regime and retrieve the hostages. Its figures cannot be verified and include gunmen and civilians. The IDF says it has killed at least 10,000 Hamas terrorists in its war in Gaza; over 220 IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

According to numerous unconfirmed reports, Hamas is demanding far-reaching concessions for a second deal. National Security Minister Ben Gvir last week called some of the reported terms of that deal – including a weeks- or even months-long ceasefire and the release of thousands of terrorists from Israeli jails — “reckless.” Ben Gvir has threatened to pull out of the coalition, endangering the government, if such a deal goes ahead.

Netanyahu has ruled out releasing thousands of prisoners for the hostages. He has also rejected a key Hamas demand — ending the war and withdrawing the IDF as a condition for any further hostage releases, insisting that the war will end only when Hamas is destroyed and all hostages released.

A key argument against the reported terms of a second deal with Hamas is the danger to security that the release of many convicted terrorists will entail. The controversial 2011 deal for the release of hostage soldier Gilad Shalit saw the release of over 1,000 terror convicts, some of whom later committed deadly attacks. One of them was Yahya Sinwar, now Hamas’s Gaza leader and the architect of the October 7 massacres.

To counter such arguments, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum showed at the rally a compilation of statements by retired security establishment leaders who advocate prioritizing the retrieval of the hostages.

Thousands of protesters at Habima Square in Tel Aviv call for elections, February 3, 2024. (Aviv Atlas)

Shown on a giant screen, the compilation included comments by former Shin Bet security agency head Yuval Diskin, who said: “I support releasing all the prisoners” in return for the hostages’ freedom. His successor Nadav Argaman called retrieving the hostages “the foremost mission,” and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz said that “there is no victory without the hostages.”

A different group of families of hostages, the Tikvah Forum, disputes such assertions. Its members, who include parents of some of the hostages in Gaza, reject making concessions to Hamas and argue in favor of freeing the hostages either by force or through a deal that would not “endanger other Israelis,” as they have phrased it.

Another rally with hundreds of participants marched through Jerusalem Saturday night demanding an immediate release of the hostages. Some of the participants carried signs and chanted slogans critical of the government, including ones demanding Netanyahu’s resignation.

Protesters in Jerusalem calling for the hostages’ release march to Paris Square on February 3, 2024. The Hebrew-language signs read: ‘My sisters’ blood cries out to me’ and “The government is responsible for the hostages’ lives.’ (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

At the Jerusalem rally, Leebie Goldberg-Polin read a poem about her missing brother, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was badly injured and taken hostage by Hamas at the Nova music festival. “One hundred and twenty days and all I want is a hug from you,” she said about her brother.

The Jerusalem event, which the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said it did not organize, encountered a handful of counter-protesters who shouted from the other side of the police barricade during speeches and held up signs comparing a prospective hostage deal to the Oslo Accords.

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