Reporter's notebook 'We feel like we’re in a game of Russian roulette'

Partisan divisions resurface at rival rallies for release of Gaza hostages

Hostility toward Netanyahu simmers at weekly solidarity gathering whose organizers say is nonpartisan; right-wing counter-protest says no one should 'get in the way' of IDF campaign

Eyal Lahiani, right, speaks at a rally in Tel Aviv, Israel on December 16, 2023 with a demonstrator at another rally in favor of a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On a sidewalk opposite the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv, Meirav Leshem Gonen erected a tent together with other relatives of Israelis who are being held hostage in Gaza.

“We’re sleeping here tonight and every night going forward until we are no longer ignored,” Leshem Gonen, whose daughter Romi is a hostage, told The Times of Israel on Saturday night.

The encampment is a “last resort,” said Jimmy Miller, whose cousin Shiri Bibas was abducted by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from Nir Oz together with her two boys, aged 4 and 10 months. “Our message should have been understood through communication. Now we have no alternative but to use force to be heard,” he added as he pitched his own tent.

Miller and Leshem Gonen are part of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which has vowed to camp out in front of the Kirya until the war cabinet comes out with a framework for a deal with Hamas for the release of Israelis, presumably in exchange for terrorists held by Israel.

Hundreds of protesters marched to the encampment from the weekly solidarity rally with the hostages. The marchers picketed the Kirya, some calling for a ceasefire to facilitate a deal.

The encampment represents an “escalation of measures,” according to the Forum, a group of relatives promoting a deal with Hamas. The accidental slaying of three hostages by Israeli troops on Friday, the Forum says, shows military action will not help secure the release of the Israelis still presumed to be held captive in Gaza.

Meirav Leshem Gonen, right, pitches a tent outside the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv, Israel on December 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

It is believed that some 128 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive. During a weeklong truce at the end of November, 105 hostages were released. 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 21 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

The Forum’s members are not the only ones losing patience.

On Saturday opponents of a deal with Hamas for the first time held a rally opposite the relatives’ encampment, shouting slogans against “surrendering to Hamas” and arguing for uncompromising warfare against the terrorist group and for “releasing hostages with military force” rather than through deals.

For the first time in the war context, the competing demonstrations produced discordant scenes reminiscent of the left-right divisions that had polarized Israeli society before they were sidelined by the trauma of the war that broke out on October 7. Those divisions appear to be resurfacing as Israelis come up against the limits of military action in Gaza.

Rabbi Aviad Gadot speaks at a rally in Tel Aviv on December 16, 2023 against a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Rabbi Aviad Gadot, who led the demonstration against a swap deal, dismissed the Forum demonstrators as “a handful of people who are here for partisan reasons.” He added: “We will not allow anyone, even [US President Joe] Biden or international pressures, to get in the way of the Israel Defense Forces vanquishing Israel’s enemies.”

The anti-deal demonstration gradually drew the attention of pro-deal protesters near the encampment on the other side of Begin Road. They approached, shouting “Shame on you” and “Netanyahu go home” at the anti-deal protesters. Police separated the two groups, but along the police line, protesters from the opposing camps sought to engage one another with increasingly partisan rhetoric.

“Bibi and Sinwar have been in bed together for 15 years, are you kidding me?!” one pro-deal protester shouted at Eyal Lahiani, a counter-protester from Beit Shemesh. It was a reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on Yahya Sinwar’s Hamas, which was allegedly allowed to grow under the prime minister’s divide-and-conquer policy vis-à-vis Palestinians, seeking to keep the rival Fatah party, which runs the Palestinian Authority, weak.

Relatives of the hostages in Gaza march from a solidarity rally to the Begin Gate of the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv, Israel on December 16, 2023. (Courtesy of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

“Your hatred of Bibi has blinded you! How can we take you seriously after a statement like that?!” Lahiani shouted back.

Earlier on Saturday night, anti-government sentiment reverberated through the crowd of several thousand protesters at the weekly solidarity rally, from which the families of the hostages and hundreds of protesters broke off to set up the encampment.

At the rally, chants of the word “shame” spread through the crowd in response to a speech by Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Chaimi is thought to have been abducted from Nir Yitzhak and subsequently killed in captivity. The chants, which are emblematic of the protest movement against Netanyahu and his government’s judicial overhaul, came in response to Goren’s call for Netanyahu to declare a ceasefire.

Tal Chaimi (right), here with his wife Ella, was taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. His family was told on December 13, 2023, that he was killed during the October 7 attack. (Courtesy)

“The fighting cannot free the hostages, it endangers them. It’s killing them,” Goren said. Addressing Netanyahu, he added: “Only a deal will prevent unnecessary deaths.”

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza began after some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians, and abducting some 240 hostages.

The audience on several occasions responded with booing and chants of “shame” after hearing Netanyahu’s name. This prompted one of the organizers to interrupt the rally and ask the participants to refrain from doing so, because “we don’t do politics here.”

Ruby Chen, father of Israeli hostage Itay, held in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas onslaught, lifts an hourglass as he delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on December 16, 2023. (Yair Sagi)

Multiple speakers at the rally told of their fears for relatives presumed to be held in Gaza, and of how their anxiety grows with the release of each new name of a hostage confirmed dead. “We feel like we’re in a game of Russian roulette; who will be next in line to be told the death of their loved one,” said Ruby Chen, father of 19-year-old soldier Itai, who is among the captives.

He complained of the alleged inaccessibility of Israeli war cabinet ministers. Ruby Chen, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and who has met with US President Joe Biden in an attempt to free his son, said at a press conference ahead of the rally that meeting Biden was “easier” than meeting the war cabinet.

Among the protesters, distrust for the government mixed with grief over the slaying of three hostages in Gaza to form what one demonstrator, Sue Newman from Rishon Lezion, called “utter despair.”

Sue Newman visits Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on on November 24, 2023, after activists turned the place into a hub of activity pushing for the release of Israeli captives in Gaza. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Bibi nearly brought about a civil war in this country. Nearly. He’s now brought about a war because he worried about his own backside and his position in the parliament and his coalition, and he didn’t worry about the country,” she said.

But anger at the government was not the main reason that Newman, a London-born teacher of business English who has ten grandchildren, came to the rally. She attended it primarily to show support for the families of the hostages following Friday’s slaying of the three hostages, she said.

“I needed to go to give and to get,” she told The Times of Israel. “You give support by coming there and you feel the strength of the hope and the support that comes back to you from the crowd. I’m so happy that I went because I feel so much better afterward.”

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