Thousands of demonstrators held simultaneous rallies in Tel Aviv, Caesarea and Jerusalem on Saturday evening to pressure the government to do more to immediately secure the release of the more than 130 hostages held in Gaza by Palestinian terrorists since the October 7 onslaught.
The rallies, organized by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, featured speakers who demanded an end or a halt to the fighting in Gaza and an exchange with Hamas for the hostages’ return. Hamas has demanded a ceasefire as one of several preconditions for any deal, according to media reports.
Separate anti-government rallies were also held in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation.
Jewish-American rapper Matisyahu kicked off the main rally what is now known as Hostages Square, at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, telling the crowd: “You’ll have my voice, and all I’ll be thinking is the return of the hostages.”
The artist, whose real name is Matthew Paul Miller, performed a song about antisemitism featuring multiple allusions to the Holocaust, followed by his well-known hit “One Day.”
The rally in Tel Aviv broadcast the simultaneous protest outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, where people shouted into megaphones: “Deal, right now!”
שמח לפגוש בכיכר החטופים זמר ויוצר ענק.
כבוד שהופיע כאן הערב.
— הדר סגל Hadar Segal ???????? (@hadarse) January 20, 2024
Shira Albag, whose daughter Liri, 18, is held hostage in Gaza, told the Tel Aviv crowd that life feels like death for her.
Thoughts of her daughter “never leave me,” she said. “I wake up alive and I go to sleep feeling dead.”
She noted that two weeks ago, images of Liri and three other women in captivity emerged.
“It took me a while to recognize her, to understand that that girl in the blue sweatshirt is my daughter,” said Shira of her 18-year-old daughter.
“If I’m having it tough, how tough is she having it? She cries out to me, I can hear her calling for help, with no one to protect her and hug her. But there are those who can save her, and we can make it happen,” Albag said, referencing the government and pressure for it to make a deal for the release of the hostages.
Chen Goldstein-Almog, who was abducted to Gaza on October 7 from Kibbutz Kfar Aza and was returned with her children during a weeklong ceasefire and prisoner swap in late November, spoke about the plight of women in captivity.
They are “injured emotionally and physically,” said Goldstein-Almog. “I keep asking myself whether we’re doing enough to bring them back,” she added. Hamas is believed to still be holding 14 female hostages.
Goldstein-Almog’s husband and eldest daughter, Yam, 20, were murdered on October 7.
1: Thousands of protestors calling for elections now in Tel Aviv. Credit Amir Goldstein
2: A table set for all the hostages in Gaza. Credit Michel Braunstein
3: Protesters in front of Netanyahu's private residence in Caesaria. Credit: Amos Gil pic.twitter.com/WVKhEJ7g60
— Jotam Confino (@mrconfino) January 20, 2024
Hagit Pe’er, the head of the Na’amat women’s rights groups, called for an agreement with Hamas and condemned international women’s groups for not speaking up against acts of rape and sexual violence against women by Hamas terrorists on October 7, and possibly after.
“It’s #MeToo, unless you’re a Jew,” she charged.
In a filmed message shown to the crowd, US politician Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the representative for Florida’s 25th congressional district, told hostages’ families that she was praying and working for their release.
“I’m praying for the release of your loved ones. Know that America stands with you. I’m working in Congress, at home and abroad, to do all I can to bring them home now,” she said.
“And to the women who were subjected to an unimaginable violation on October 7: I stand with you, believe you, and will fight for you,” said Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish Democrat. “Am Israel Chai,” she added, Hebrew for “the People of Israel lives.”
מפגינים בכיכר הבימה מריעים ״גיבור״ לזכרו של אלון שמריז, בתחילת נאומו של אחיו יונתן.
צילום: אביב אטלס pic.twitter.com/Hc8oAn5Ctj
— Michal Peylan • מיכל פעילן (@michalpeylan) January 20, 2024
Avi Lulu Shamriz, the father of Alon Shamriz, a hostage mistakenly killed by Israeli troops in December, told AFP in Tel Aviv that Netanyahu’s war cabinet was heading for disaster.
“The way we’re going, all the hostages are going to die. It’s not too late to free them,” he said.
Another protester, Yael Niv, said Israel desperately needed a new government to correct the country’s course.
The 50-year-old said “the messianic elements in our government” were a major danger to Israel, as she handed out stickers urging the return of the hostages.
“Eliminating Hamas is not going to happen through war and the escalation of violence,” she argued.
Similar messages were the central focus of an earlier, separate anti-government rally at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square.
Before any speakers came up to the stage at that protest, a parody of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” calling for the resignation of Israel’s current government played on the giant screen facing the crowd.
The demonstration’s first speaker, Shirel Hogeg, told the audience that they “are the generation of victory” and that Netanyahu “is playing politics with medicine for the hostages,” alluding to reports that he hid the details of the Qatar-brokered deal to deliver medications to hostages in Gaza from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Opinion polls have consistently predicted that the right-wing, far-right and Haredi parties that made up the pre-war coalition (before the centrist National Unity joined until the end of the war) would be far from achieving a parliamentary majority again if elections are held. Netanyahu has refused to take responsibility for the failures that preceded the October 7 onslaught, and has been trying to shore up his current majority in an apparent attempt to preserve his coalition.
A small altercation at the center of the anti-government protest, involving a counter-protester who fell on the ground and shouted at the crowd, calling them “haters of Israel,” interrupted Hogeg’s ascent to the stage.
However, most counter-protesters remained at the margins of the protest.
Yifat Calderon, the cousin of Ofer Calderon, one of the 136 people still held in Gaza, called on the government to “stop the fighting” and “pay the price” for the hostages — which would likely include releasing scores of Palestinian terror convicts.
“Now is the time to use all our power to save the civilians who are going through hell, and it is only by chance that they are not you,” she told the crowd, and was met with shouts calling for new elections.
During the later Hostages Square rally, some anti-government protesters cut through the crowd, calling on the crowd to join them for their separate march, sparking a brief argument between the two rallies.
“Come join the march, from Shaul HaMelech to the direction of Begin! If you want to do everything for the sake of the hostages, come join the march!” shouted one of the protesters with a megaphone.
One man from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum protest interrupted: “Kudos to you my friend, but you’re disturbing the others here.”
Some people who were protesting on Begin Road in the city said they had received NIS 1,000 ($270) fines from the police.
At the simultaneous rally in Caesarea, Mor Shoham, whose brother Tal is held hostage, told the crowd that “136 coffins are not an image of victory.”
“As we stand here, women are being abused, all hostages are without food and daylight. I want to ask the war cabinet: What are you waiting for? We demand to know your plan,” Mor Shoham said.
Hundreds attended a tent camp protest in Caesarea throughout the day, demanding that the premier meet them, and reading out the names of all the hostages.
Eli Shtivi, whose son Idan is a hostage, announced that he was starting a hunger strike until the return of his son.
At a separate demonstration in Jerusalem, hundreds marched to Paris Square near the prime minister’s official residence, chanting: “An image of victory is the last hostage.”
Another anti-government rally was also held in the capital, outside the President’s Residence, organized by the Safeguarding Our Shared Home group, where speakers and participants demanded new elections.
The group, which organized last year’s weekly anti-judicial overhaul protests, has been calling for new elections for several weeks.
War erupted after Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern communities, massacring some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 others. Israel then launched a massive military operation aimed at vanquishing Hamas and returning the hostages.
It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 27 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.
One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.
Hamas is also 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.
As January 14 marked 100 days since the beginning of the war and the hostages’ abduction, the war cabinet was reportedly split on the parameters it would accept for a hostage deal. War cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot was pushing for a long truce in exchange for hostages’ freedom, which his National Unity party leader Benny Gantz supported, but Netanyahu and Gallant were strongly opposed, according to multiple Hebrew media outlets.
Netanyahu and Gallant have repeatedly said that the only way to get the hostages back is to keep applying military pressure on Gaza by continuing the war.
AFP contributed to this report.