Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Saturday with representatives of families whose loved ones are being held captive in Gaza, and pledged that Israel “will exhaust every possibility” to bring about their return.
The representatives urged Netanyahu to agree to an “everyone for everyone” prisoner exchange with the Hamas terror group, trading Palestinians incarcerated in Israel on security offenses for the hundreds who were abducted from Israel earlier this month during a devastating attack by Hamas.
At the same time, at least 20 vigils of support for the families of the captives and memorials for those killed were held around the country on Saturday night. Many pushed the theme of a prisoner exchange to secure freedom for the captives held in Gaza. Some of the gatherings featured heavy criticism of Netanyahu.
Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, said Saturday the Palestinian terror group was ready for an “immediate” prisoner swap with Israel.
“We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Sinwar said in a statement.
On October 7, over 2,500 terrorists led by Hamas crossed the border with the Gaza Strip and began a murderous rampage through southern regions, killing over 1,400 people, most of them civilians. The gunmen also abducted over 230 people, including the elderly and infants, who are now being held captive in Gaza.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and has been carrying out intensive strikes in Gaza ahead of an expected major ground incursion. In recent days it has also started conducting limited incursions into the Strip, engaging Hamas gunmen there.
Netanyahu met with representatives of the families after they demanded to speak to him, fearing for the safety of their loved ones as the military conducted a massive strike on Hamas tunnels and bunkers in the northern part of the enclave and ground forces went in.
Netanyahu stressed to the families that freeing the hostages was a chief goal of the war, according to a statement from his office. “This isn’t just lip service,” he said.
“The key is the level of pressure” on Gaza, the premier was quoted by his office as saying. “The greater the pressure, the greater the chances [of freeing the captives].”
“An effort is ongoing. I’m not sure people realize its scope — including instructions to forces in the field, and very broad [actions] around the world and locally,” he said.
At a press conference later in the evening, Netanyahu said an exchange of all Palestinians jailed for security offenses for the captives held in Gaza had been discussed among the options Israel is looking at, but gave no further details.
The gathering at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv lasted some two hours. Netanyahu’s wife Sara was present at the meeting.
Later, representatives of the families who were at the meeting held a press conference in which they called for freeing as many Palestinian prisoners in Israel as needed in exchange for the release of their loved ones.
“Bring back everyone now,” Meirav Leshem-Gonen, whose 23-year-old daughter Romi was kidnapped on October 7, said in Tel Aviv.
Noting that meeting was “very poignant, blunt and clear words were said,” Leshem-Gonen said the families had implored Netanyahu not to launch military operations that could endanger their loved ones, while asserting that, from their point of view, there would be broad national support for an exchange deal of “everyone for everyone.”
Ye’elah David, whose brother Evyatar was among those abducted from a music festival where terrorists killed 260 people, said the families presented Netanyahu with two key points: that the safety of the hostages must be taken into consideration at all times, and that the families support the principle of an “everyone for everyone” prisoner exchange.
“I emerged with greater hope, and we hope that they will come back soon,” David said. “We want them home now.”
“We were very loud and clear in our statements about the situation,” said Malki Shemtov, father of captive Omer Shemtov. “We were speaking about what we feel and the military operation that’s underway. We are very worried about our loved ones who are there and we don’t know if the military operation will take those hostages into consideration — that no one will be injured.”
Shemtov said the families made it very clear that they are all unified in their message to the prime minister that they don’t care how much the Israeli government has to give up in order to get all captives back home safely.
“The prime minister was listening to us,” said Shemtov, “and he said he will do everything he can.”
Defense Minister Gallant’s office said he would meet with the families on Sunday.
In addition to a rally outside IDF headquarters, hundreds demonstrated outside Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea. Protesters accused Netanyahu of being responsible for the situation and demanded that he resign, chanting :”Take responsibility for the sake of the people.” There were some clashes at that rally between supporters and critics of Netanyahu, the Ynet outlet reported. Police intervened to separate the two groups.
A demonstration also took place in Jerusalem, where banners urged a prisoner exchange. In Haifa, hundreds of people at a rally held a moment of silence in memory of those killed. Other rallies were held in Beersheba, Herzliya, Netanya and Kfar Saba, among other locations.
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Earlier, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida demanded that Israel release all Palestinian security prisoners in return for the Israeli hostages it is holding, AFP reported.
“The price to pay for the large number of enemy hostages in our hands is to empty the [Israeli] prisons of all Palestinian prisoners,” he said, in a statement broadcast by the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television channel.
Ahead of a likely Israeli ground invasion, Obeida also told Israelis that Hamas was “waiting for you,” and predicted “a great defeat” and the imminent end of Zionism.
Israeli warplanes pounded northern Gaza Friday and Saturday, hitting more than 150 underground tunnels and bunkers of the Hamas terror group as tanks and other forces pushed into the Strip in a limited incursion, the military said.
One released captive described being kept in a “spiderweb” of underground tunnels and rooms.
The Hamas terror group on Thursday made an unverified claim that “almost 50” of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip had been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
There was no independent verification, and Israel has not reacted to such claims in the past. Hamas is thought to frequently fabricate such claims and to be engaged in psychological warfare against the families of the hostages as well as the general population.
Hamas has released four hostages since its October 7 terror massacre, an American-Israeli mother and daughter and two elderly Israeli women, in moves brokered by Qatar, which hosts both a US military base and Hamas’s political bureau.
Israel has dismissed reports that a hostage deal was progressing quickly, saying these were further examples of Hamas’s psychological warfare. Israel has publicly insisted that the hostages must be released unconditionally.
On Thursday, the families of the hostages held a press conference to protest what they charged was government inaction and failure to update them on the efforts to secure the release of their loved ones. They warned that their patience had run out.
In 2011, Israel exchanged over a thousand Palestinian security prisoners for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit who was abducted by Hamas from inside Israel and held for five years in Gaza. Many senior Hamas officials involved in the October 7 atrocities, Sinwar among them, were released from Israeli prison in that deal.
Emanuel Fabian and agencies contributed to this report.