Protesters block roads, clash with cops as PM accused of scorning hostage deal

Three arrested, including ex-aide to MK, at anti-government demonstrations with hostage families to protest prolongment of war and decry Netanyahu’s insistence on Rafah operation

Tens of thousands of protesters call for a deal that would see the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2024. (Benoit Ducrocq/AFPTV/AFP)

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Saturday night to demand Israel reach a deal to free hostages held in Gaza and that  new elections be held, sparking short-lived scuffles with police.

The rallies, by now a weekly affair, took place hours after a senior Israeli official issued anonymous statements to the press denying reports that Israel would commit to ending the war in Gaza for the hostages’ release.

The comments, widely speculated to have been dictated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, added fuel to protesters’ fury over what they allege is the premier’s refusal to reach a deal aimed at rescuing over 130 hostages and remains of captives, instead preferring to preserve the political support of his far-right coalition partners, who insist that Israel push ahead with plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

“We won’t be silent, and you will not silence us until they [the hostages] return,” said Hostages and Missing Families Forum organizer Tom Barkai to a crowd in Jerusalem. “And this is the time to act, the moment to stop counting the days and bring them back now.”

Three people were arrested during the demonstrations in the two cities, including a former aide of Labor MK Naama Lazimi, who herself has been heavily involved in the protests and who accused police of using excessive force.

Carrying posters reading “Stop the war” and chanting for an immediate deal with the Hamas terror group to free the hostages, marchers in the capital initially set out together from the main protest hub of Paris Square, but eventually split off into several groups heading in different directions throughout the city center as police rushed to contain the crowds.

Large crowds rally on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, near the prime minister’s residence, to urge a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, May 4, 2024. (Courtesy: Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

One group managed to block the city’s light rail on Jaffa Street, while another came to a halt outside the YMCA, after police formed a human barrier in front of the unauthorized march.

Protesters later recongregated in Paris Square, clashing with police as they attempted unsuccessfully to obstruct a major traffic intersection bordering the small public space.

Police said two people were arrested, one of whom had disturbed the peace and a second person suspected of hitting an officer over the head with a wooden pole at a protest a few days prior.

One person was seen being wrestled to the ground by police in the middle of a street and arrested, as others were shoved out of the way.

Similar scenes took place in Tel Aviv, as groups of protesters marched through the city with hostage families and attempted to block roads following a rally to demand new elections at the recently renamed “Democracy Square” outside the Kirya military headquarters.

“We need a different government, a government that isn’t busy all day inciting and dividing,” said Uri and Bar Hefetz, a father and daughter from Nirim who have been displaced from their homes since October 7. “We want to go home, and in order to go home, this whole government needs to go now.”

Police said they arrested one person who attempted to block Ayalon Highway, and handed out fines to 16 others in the same group.

After marching throughout the heart of the city, protesters staged a sit-in lasting over an hour on Begin Street. Though police told the demonstrators to disperse, they did not make any effort to force them off the street, and the crowd soon disintegrated on its own.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside the Kirya Base in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Labor MK  Lazimi, who attended the Tel Aviv sit-in, identified the man seen being arrested in Jerusalem as her former aide Yiftach Dotan. The lawmaker, who was pushed around by police at a protest on Monday, accused the cops of using “extreme and harsh violence” to detain him.

She later reported that Dotan was being held overnight, after she rushed to a police station in Jerusalem to see him but was barred from entering.

“These sham arrests and violence in the mindset of [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir have to cease and be dealt with using all of our might,” Lazimi wrote on X. “We will act against this madness with every tool available to us.”

The rallies had been planned to dovetail thematically with upcoming national memorials to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Israel and the rest of the Jewish world will mark Sunday night and Monday.

“Everyone must be returned. We will not abandon them as the Jews were abandoned during the Holocaust,” Hanna Cohen, aunt to 27-year-old Inbar Haiman, who was murdered by Hamas with her body still believed to be held in Gaza, told Reuters.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But speeches and sentiment were also largely colored by reports in the Israeli and Arab press that Israel and Hamas could be nearing a deal to halt the fighting and free hostages kidnapped into the Gaza Strip on October 7, which were quickly shot down by an anonymous Israeli official.

“Contrary to the reports, Israel will under no circumstances agree to the end of the war as part of an agreement to release our hostages,” the official said in the first of two statements denying indications that the sides had made progress thanks to a US guarantee that a later phase of the arrangement would see Israel halt fighting for good and and pull its forces out of the Strip.

The reports came as a Hamas delegation met in Cairo with US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators to discuss a possible deal, after months of fruitless negotiations. Among the toughest issues have been Hamas’s demand that any deal include an Israeli agreement to end the war. The government has insisted that the fight will continue until Hamas is completely destroyed, terming the group’s continued existence an existential threat.

The statement was met with blowback from war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who called on “the source and all other decision-makers to wait for official updates, act with restraint and not become hysterical for political reasons.”

Meanwhile, Ben Gvir hailed Netanyahu for not dispatching a delegation to Cairo and said he expected the premier to keep the promises he allegedly made when the two met on Tuesday: “No to a reckless deal, yes to Rafah.”

“The prime minister knows well what the price is of not honoring this commitment,” Ben Gvir added, in a veiled threat to leave the government.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich issued a similar comment calling for fighting to continue and terming a deal a “surrender.”

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The anonymous statements, widely believed to have been issued by Netanyahu, appeared to amplify criticism of Netanyahu as prioritizing his political survival and the backing of Ben Gvir and Smotrich over the hostages’ safety.

Einav Zangauker, the mother of hostage Matan Zangauker, said during a press conference in Tel Aviv that Netanyahu was undermining a chance to save the hostages despite an agreement with Hamas being within reach, accusing him of “committing a crime against his people.”

Outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, Jon Goldberg-Polin, the father of Hamas-held hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, said the family’s decision to approve publication of a video released by Hamas last month showing his son alive was meant to help heap pressure on decision-makers for a deal.

“Ten days ago, we saw and heard our son for the first time in 201 days,” he said. “We were asked if we approve of the publication of the video, and without a second thought we said yes, for one reason. The world, the leaders, the politicians and those partaking in negotiations need a reminder that we are not fighting for a number, but about real people.”

Jon Goldberg-Polin, father of hostage Hersh Goldberg Polin speaks during a hostage families protest near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on May 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Ella Mor, whose 4-year-old niece Abigail Idan was released from Hamas captivity in a deal last November, told the crowd that Israel could not begin to recover from the devastating attack on October 7 without the return of the hostages.

“What sets us apart from our enemies is our values. We don’t leave wounded in the field, and we don’t leave hostages in the field. Our humanity is not a weakness, even if our enemies think so,” she said.

Some 1,200 people were killed and another 252 kidnapped when thousands of Hamas led terrorists infiltrated into southern Israel on October 7 in an unprecedented assault. Over 100 hostages were released as part of a truce deal in November.

Of the 132 hostages still in Gaza, including four held for nearly a decade, 37 are believed to be dead.

This past week, two Israelis previously assumed to be alive in Hamas captivity were confirmed dead.

Over Shabbat, the IDF discovered the remains of Elyakim Libman in Israel after he was accidentally buried with another victim of the Supernova rave massacre.

On May 3, Kibbutz Be’eri announced that Dror Or, a resident of the kibbutz presumed to be kidnapped, was in fact murdered by Hamas. His remains are being held in Gaza.

Most Popular
read more: