Thousands of protesters gathered in Jerusalem Thursday night calling on the government to press ahead with the military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and reject pressure to pause the fighting as part of a hostage release deal.
The rally, which took place as the Israeli government’s war cabinet met to formulate an official response to Hamas’s recent ceasefire proposal, was the culmination of a five-day trek from the Gaza border to Jerusalem by activists, largely right-wing, along with families of hostages and other victims of Hamas terror who are urging the government to continue with the military campaign in the Hamas-run enclave.
The rally, organized by an activist group run by IDF reservists in favor of Israeli military action in Gaza, displayed a marked bent toward the right wing of the political sphere, which has favored tougher military action amid efforts to reach a truce that could free the remaining 136 hostages in Hamas captivity.
Many activists held signs bearing messages in support of Israel’s use of military force to pressure Hamas into releasing the hostages who were kidnapped on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, killed some 1,200 people and abducted 253.
Other signs held aloft by participants displayed pictures of soldiers killed during Israel’s nearly four-month-old ground offensive, called for revenge and displayed slogans including “it’s us or them” and “only [population] transfer will bring peace.” One person waved a Trump 2024 flag.
The display by the thousands gathered outside Jerusalem’s government quarter came in stark contrast to weekly rallies in Tel Aviv calling for a hostage deal, underlining the increasing political polarization of the issue in Israeli society.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met privately Thursday with families of hostages seized by Hamas on October 7, many of whom have publicly pleaded for a compromise to return the abductees.
Several relatives of the hostages in Gaza lamented what they described as a “terrible campaign” being advanced against them in Israel.
“The feeling is that those who are supposed to be overseeing the return of the hostages are not really interested in doing so,” one of the representatives told Blinken, according to Channel 12.
“We feel dreadful. We feel that there’s a campaign designed to torpedo the deal and to create public opinion against it. We are told to use pressure abroad, but at home, where we ought to be embraced, there’s an effort to change the public perception at our expense,” the representative was quoted as having said.
Talks toward a possible truce had appeared to ramp up over the past two weeks, following a Paris meeting between Qatari and Egyptian mediators and US and Israeli negotiators that delivered a proposed outline for a hostage release deal.
Hamas eventually countered the Paris outline with demands Israel has considered non-starters like a permanent end to the war, the end of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, the complete withdrawal of troops, and the release of large numbers of Palestinian security prisoners.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the Hamas proposal as “delusional,” maintaining that only military pressure would secure the release of the hostages held captive in Gaza.
“There is no substitute for absolute victory,” he said, adding that to surrender to Hamas’s terms would be to invite another slaughter.
On Thursday, an Israeli official said Israel would work to pressure Hamas via mediators to drop its terms and did not plan on offering new conditions.
Hamas had proposed a four-and-a-half-month truce during which hostages would be freed in three stages, and which would lead to an end to the war. The deal would have left the terror group intact and seen the release of 1,500 prisoners from Israeli jails, a third of whom are serving life sentences.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s fighting and governing capabilities in the Gaza Strip, return the hostages, ensure no future terror threat from Gaza and restore security across the country.
Sam Sokol contributed to this report.