Protesters blocked roads in Tel Aviv amid nationwide demonstrations Saturday evening, many of which demanded the release of hostages held by the Hamas terror group, while some called for elections.
Demonstrations were held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Rehovot, Ra’anana, and other locales throughout the country, as Qatari- and Egyptian-mediated efforts to secure a deal stalled, with Hamas making demands Israel has rejected.
At the main rally at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, protesters marched down Kaplan Street. Police on horses attempted to clear the street and push the demonstrators toward the sides, amid cries of “shame” from the crowd.
Meanwhile, a protester equipped with a megaphone read off names of hostages who remain in Hamas captivity.
At least seven protesters were arrested after some blocked part of the Ayalon Highway heading south and set bonfires ablaze, police said.
At least five other protesters received fines for “obstructing traffic,” according to the police.
קרובי משפחה של חטופים ופעילים למען שחרורם חוסמים את איילון דרום ליד מחלף השלום, והבעירו מדורות על הכביש pic.twitter.com/05QkzzCexu
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) February 10, 2024
Two Knesset members from the Labor party, Gilad Kariv and Naama Lazimi, showed up at the protest on Kaplan Street, using their parliamentary immunity to advocate on behalf of the demonstrators.
The pair mingled with protesters and law enforcement, attempting to reduce tensions between the two groups. When one officer confiscated a demonstrator’s drum, Kariv protested the confiscation and followed the officers. As he questioned the police on the lawfulness of their confiscation, he was forcefully shoved by an officer.
חה״כ גלעד קריב נדחף באלימות הערב ע״י שוטר במהלך ההפגנה בקפלן.
חה״כ נדחף לאחר שדרש הבהרות מקציני המשטרה תשובה ברורה לשאלה – מכוח איזו הוראת חוק הוחרם ציוד של המפגינים pic.twitter.com/g42qxowmEV
— אלימות ישראל (@Alimut_Israel) February 10, 2024
‘Not our way’
Speaking before several thousand people at Hostages Square, protest organizer Sivan Cohen Sabag decried what she described as growing partisanship surrounding the event.
“Several weeks ago we couldn’t have even imagined that hostages would become [seen as] left-wing and soldiers would be [seen as] right-wing,” the co-founder of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said.
Last week’s rally took a partisan turn as speakers accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of avoiding a deal because he fears it will bring down his government and lead to elections.
“We could never have imagined that a family of hostages would be assaulted here,” she said.
Cohen Sabag was referencing an altercation last week between Einav Zangauker, mother of Matan Zangauker, who was taken hostage by Hamas from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, and a passerby who was filmed shoving her and telling her that by demonstrating in front of military headquarters in Tel Aviv, she was “preventing the prime minister from waging the war.”
Such incidents “do not represent our country, it is not our country, it is not our way,” said Cohen Sabag, who went on to express thanks to Israeli troops fighting in Gaza.
Zangauker also spoke at the rally, issuing a call for an end to the fighting in Gaza to retrieve the hostages.
She said and end to the fighting was among the terms “for a deal that could bring the hostages tomorrow morning.” But she claimed Netanyahu was “hiding the terms from us and preventing the deal.”
Hamas is widely reported to have demanded a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners serving sentences for deadly attacks, among many other demands related to aid and the reconstruction of Gaza.
Israel has said any demand to end the war is a nonstarter.
Zangauker accused Netanyahu of “not protecting” her from threats such as last week’s altercation. Zangauker, who said she had voted for Netanyahu and his Likud party, urged him “not to get squeezed by [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, who have threatened to topple his government if he pursues what they call a “reckless deal.”
She added: ‘I voted for you at the ballot box. When will you vote for me?”
Danny Elgarat, whose brother Itzik Elgarat was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz, lambasted Netanyahu, claiming he was engaged in fearmongering over a potential deal. Thousands answered in support with cries of “shame.”
“Netanyahu has started his scare campaign — we know them from the past: ‘Peres will divide Jerusalem’; ‘The Arabs are arriving in droves to vote’; ‘The Iranian nuclear project’ — and now he scares us that there will be a massacre if we accept the terms of the deal [with Hamas],” Elgarat said.
Elgarat said, “Only stopping the war and retrieving the hostages will restore faith in Israel’s sovereignty.”
Amir Tibon, a survivor of the massacre of Nahal Oz, argued for a second deal with Hamas to retrieve the remaining hostages in Gaza.
“Before the first round,” he said, referencing the November truce that saw the release of 105 hostages, “we were also warned that this would end the war, but the war continues and Hamas has had a major military defeat.”
Two 10-year-old children, Hili Cooper and Or Nohomovitch, told protesters how they miss their grandfather, Amiram Cooper, who was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz.
“I miss the rides in your mobility scooter, and your greeting cards and going to the pool with pretzels [and] apples and I miss grandma’s strawberry cake, which she doesn’t make because she’s sad,” said Or.
Hili Cooper said she missed her grandfather on Family Day last week.
“Netanyahu, I’m addressing you because you are the prime minister: Bring back my grandfather now, he doesn’t have much time!” said Or Nohomovitch.
Eyal Ben-Reuven, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces, followed the children, saying: “I trained thousands of soldiers to leave no man behind, ever. This is our moral imperative.”
The price, he added in reference to retrieving the hostages, “will be unbearable.” But he said the people would support the cabinet in making a deal with Hamas.
‘Let’s choose to act before it’s too late’
In Jerusalem, hundreds protested outside the President’s Residence, while an even larger crowd gathered at Paris Square, near the prime minister’s official residence.
Activist Michal Hadas Rubin called on the government to act with responsibility toward “our children who are serving” in the military, noting that her own two children are doing so.
“They are making decisions for the survival of the coalition. There are more and more injured soldiers, soldiers who have been killed, but hey, the coalition is surviving. The leadership should only act and do what is good for the country.”
As the crowd called for elections, Rubin said, “Let’s choose to act before it’s too late.”
Major general (res.) Amos Malka, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, also spoke at the rally, drawing a link between the coalition that came into power in December 2022 and the events of October 7.
“What’s with this crazy government? This untethered prime minister?” asked Malka. He claimed Netanyahu had dragged Israel into his own war for survival and called him a leader with “zero empathy and zero responsibility.”
He accused Netanyahu of helping to cultivate Hamas in the past, as the crowd yelled in approval.
“2024 is the year when the fate of the country will be determined,” said Malka, referring to the multiple war fronts, the hostages, Israel’s relationship with the US, and its relations with Arab neighbors.
“These kinds of challenges can only be met by a government that has the trust of the country,” said Malka. “And this government does not have the trust of the public.”
Malka concluded by calling for new elections this summer.
At Paris Square, Elad Or, brother of hostage Dror Or who was taken captive from Kibbutz Be’eri after his wife was killed (their two children were abducted but later released) said he and his father represent the families of hostages, “a terrible title that describes what it’s like to grow up in Kibbutz Reim and Kibbutz Be’eri,” two of the kibbutz communities attacked by Hamas on October 7.
“People say we only care about our own people,” said Or, “but the people here are the answer to that. You represent solidarity and unity. You understand that it’s a fight for us all.”
Or said it was imperative to encourage a potential deal that could save lives.
“We don’t have the privilege of giving up,” he said. “The price of the hostages is the highest price we are paying; show the government of Israel that it can do this, be our hope.”
Eli Cohen, the uncle of murdered hostage Inbar Haiman, spoke to the crowd about his niece, an art student at Wizo Haifa who he said always saw the light and color and joy in each person.
“Our loved ones were abandoned and they all must be brought back — those alive for rehabilitation and the dead for a proper burial,” said Cohen.
“I don’t want to get used to this situation,” said Moti Fogel, brother of Udi Fogel, who, with his wife Ruth and three of their six children, was murdered on March 11, 2011, in the settlement of Itamar.
Referring to the hostages, Fogel, a literary critic who lives in Jerusalem, said: “We can’t get used to this, but that’s what happened to us over the years, to know, to be told that it can always be worse.”
A deal to free the hostages has to be made, he said. As he spoke, someone outside the rally yelled on a megaphone, protesting against a potential deal. The crowd roared back with “Now,” a common chant at the rallies.
“We can handle any price,” said Fogel. “The lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. The hostages are our heroes who need us. The families of the hostages are our heroes. We’ll pay any price to get them home.”
At the end of the rally, the organizers named every hostage, alive or dead, still held in Gaza.
“We hope we won’t have to be here next week,” said one of the organizers from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which organized the rally. “We hope the hostages will be back home, in their beds, with their loved ones.”
Calls for an election have grown amid intense criticism of the government for the failures that enabled the October 7 attacks as well as dissatisfaction with its handling of the war, with repeated polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu losing his majority in the Knesset if a vote was to be held today.
Hamas and other terror factions are holding 132 of the 253 hostages taken on October 7, following a weeklong November truce deal that saw the release of 105 civilians, mostly women and children.
The IDF has said 29 of the 132 are dead, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.
Hamas has also been 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 Gaza Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.