Protesters, police clash following rallies focused on plight of female hostages

Two Tel Aviv protests held block apart, both using Women’s Day as theme; rally for hostages disperses peacefully, while anti-gov’t protesters spar with cops before heading home

Police use water cannons on protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)
Police use water cannons on protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv broke through a police barrier and blocked main traffic arteries on Saturday night while chanting about the need for immediate elections, prompting police to use force in order to subdue them.

The clash followed two separate rallies, each drawing many thousands of participants and held roughly a block apart from each other, near the IDF’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv. An anti-government demonstration was staged on Kaplan Street — the main site of last year’s protests against the government’s judicial overhaul. The other rally focused on the retrieval of hostages kidnapped to Gaza on October 7 and was held at the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as has been the case for the past 22 weeks. The space is now known as Hostages Square.

For several months, the war and the trauma of the Hamas onslaught had sidelined the political divisions that many feared risked tearing Israeli society apart throughout 2023. The government’s judicial overhaul that year prompted stormy demonstrations across the country. Within several weeks of October 7, however, those divisions began resurfacing and culminating in Saturday night political rallies.

At the end of the anti-government rally, hundreds of protesters broke through the police barrier on Begin Street and continued northward while carrying torches and Israeli flags. They blocked that road, blowing whistles and horns and calling for immediate elections.

Dozens of protesters blocked the nearby Ayalon Highway as well before being forcefully scattered by police using water cannons. Several demonstrators were detained, including one on suspicion of hurling a torch at officers.

Before the road blockages and clashes with police, the anti-government rally featured a lineup that highlighted women, in recognition of International Women’s Day, which occurred Friday.

Police use water cannons on protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

Gal Alkalai, a special forces reservist who in 2018 became the first woman to graduate from one of the IDF’s top search and rescue training programs, said in her address, “Countries that fail in how they treat women, fail.” Alkalai referenced the government’s slashing of funding to the Michal Sela Forum, which combats domestic violence. The conduct of women soldiers on October 7 and during the ensuing war “proved once and for all” that women can serve in all positions of the IDF, she said.

Women were also spotlighted at the Hostages Square Rally, whose organizers at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum say is nonpartisan and focused solely on retrieving the 134 hostages in Gaza. Relatives of all the 19 women still held in the Strip addressed the rally.

At the request of the rally’s emcee, actress Yael Abecassis, thousands of women held hands on Hostages Square for a moment of prayer and meditation for the return of the female hostages as well as the 115 others. “Maybe it’s weird, and maybe it’s too intimate, but let’s join hands and send strength to our sisters in Gaza,” said Abecassis.

Seventeen-year-old Agam Goldstein, who was held hostage for more than 50 days until her release in a prisoner swap in November, expressed a rare rebuke of the anti-government demonstration, which has been held at the same time as the rally for the hostages for the past several weeks.

Released hostage Agam Goldstein-Almog speaks in a documentary about sexual abuse perpetrated by Hamas. (Screenshot used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“I didn’t plan on saying this, but on the way over, I saw the other rally, and it made me sad,” said Goldstein. “It’s not because I’m against it. I just think now is not the time. The hostages are the first priority and are something that unites all of us.”

Many participants of the Hostages Square demonstrations also attend the anti-government foil, though. The former rally’s organizers say their events, which often do feature harsh criticism of the government, are nonpartisan. Goldstein’s remarks appeared to mark the first time a hostage rally speaker criticized the demonstration down the road.

Goldstein addressed Hamas in Arabic, saying: “If you have a shred of humanity left in you, release the hostages.” In Hebrew, she added: “I was taught that Islam believes in adding good to the world and objects to wrongdoing. The Quran has verses that command men to treat women decently and it has verses about holding hostages [respectfully].”

Shiri Bibas and her sons Ariel, 4, and baby Kfir, are abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Screenshot)

Ofri Levy broke down in tears during her speech as she recalled how her sister-in-law, Shiri Bibas, “defended her sons with her own body” from Hamas terrorists who abducted the two boys and their parents to Gaza on October 7.

“Dearest Shiri, we miss your unique laugh and sitting down with you and watching the kids horse around together,” said Levy at the Hostages Square rally. The Bibas family — 4-year-old Ariel and his baby brother Kfir, Shiri and her husband Yarden – were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Their abduction, which was filmed, and the image of Shiri hugging her two redhead children surrounded by terrorists, has become an icon of the plight of the hostages.

Shira Albag, the mother of hostage Liri Albag, who turned 19 in captivity last month, said at the Hostages Square rally that Shabbat “is no longer Shabbat” without Liri’s laughter and cooking.

Simona Steinbrecher, center, stands with other relatives of hostages on stage at the wekly rally on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Simona Steinbrecher, whose daughter Doron, 30, Hamas abducted from Kfar Aza, noted that her daughter – “has kind, smiling eyes, blond hair and endless love for people and animals alike… She also deserves International Women’s Day.”

Denouncing the silence

Smaller protests across Israel drew thousands more.

Hundreds attended another rally in Jerusalem, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. Speakers at that event criticized both the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and international organizations for allegedly ignoring the hostage families’ plight.

Gail Shoresh, a former Mossad official, stood at the Jerusalem rally beneath a banner with the names and faces of the 19 women hostages in Gaza. Speaking to the hundreds in attendance, she derided “the silence of international women’s and human rights organizations.” She urged female leaders and decision-makers around the world to “denounce Hamas’s  sexual terrorism” and to use “political, economic and legal pressure to bring all hostages home and all terrorists to justice.”

Ex-Mossad official Gail Shoresh addresses Jerusalem hostage families protest on March 9, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel) (edited)

The Jerusalem rally also featured criticism of the government on issues unrelated to the hostages and the war in Gaza.

Criticizing the decision of Education Minister Yoav Kisch to limit this year’s Israel Prize awards, academic Haim Weiss accused him of “alienating the Israel Academy” and “harming its power and status within Israel and throughout the world.”

Kisch decided to shrink the annual Israel Prize to a couple of war-related categories this year. One of the traditional categories, the Entrepreneurship Award, was supposed to go to Eyal Waldman, founder of the computer network supplier Mellanox and a vocal critic of the Netanyahu government. Waldman’s daughter, Danielle, was among some 1,200 Israelis that about 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered on October 7.

Twenty days later, Israel launched a still-ongoing ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza that has led to the death of more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to unverified data by Palestinian officials. Israel says it has killed some 13,000 terrorists in the fighting.

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