Report: Most Likud ministers favor expanding negotiators' mandate

Multiple rallies push for hostage deal, elections; police said to bolster forces

Protest leaders get warning letter from Tel Aviv police chief: ‘They want to intimidate us’; dad of soldier held in Gaza: Winning war seems more important to PM than hostages’ return

Relatives and supporters of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group attend a rally calling for their release in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Relatives and supporters of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group attend a rally calling for their release in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The families of Israeli hostages held in Gaza held weekly rallies in Tel Aviv Saturday evening to press for an agreement, as protests against the government were also being held nationwide.

The main rally for the captives was getting under way at 7:30 p.m. in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, with a second being held at the entrance to the Kirya defense headquarters in the city.

Speakers were to include freed hostage Raz Ben Ami, whose husband Ohad is still held in Gaza; freed hostage Aviva Siegel, whose husband Keith is still held captive, and Shira Albag, whose 18-year-old daughter Liri is held in the enclave.

Organizers said there would be a “dramatic announcement.” No further details were given.

The rally comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave approval on Friday for an Israeli delegation to resume indirect negotiations with Hamas in Cairo in the coming days for a truce and hostage deal.

Earlier this week, Mossad chief David Barnea reportedly informed the war cabinet that a hostage deal was still possible if Israel would be willing to be more lenient regarding the return of Gazans to their home in the northern part of the Strip.

Israel has largely rejected the idea, as it seeks to prevent a resurgence of Hamas activity in areas that it has already cleared of the terror group.

Haaretz on Saturday quoted an unnamed Israeli source saying the talks have been deadlocked because Hamas has refused to show any flexibility on its demand for all northern Gazans to be allowed to return and its conditioning of any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to ending the war and withdrawing all IDF forces.

Channel 12 reported Friday that during a discussion a day earlier at the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir were against increased flexibility in the indirect talks with Hamas, and that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi were cautious due to concerns that it could erode military achievements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the security cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

However, the outlet said the premier was apparently surprised to learn that most of the ministers from his Likud party were in favor of expanding the mandate of the negotiating teams. The Prime Minister’s Office denied the report.

The father of kidnapped US-born lone soldier Omer Neutra said Saturday that he does not believe Netanyahu’s chief priority in the war against Hamas is the return of the hostages, after the premier met directly with families of captive IDF soldiers for the first time since October 7.

“He is working [for the return of the hostages], but victory in the war is more important,” Ronen Neutra told Kan public radio. “We did not receive any details about the negotiations. He claimed we’re holding assets that Hamas really wants.”

Ronen (2nd right) and Orna Neutra (right) give a statement to the media before their meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the IDF Recruitment Center at Tel Hashomer, March 28, 2024 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, anti-government protesters will gather at 7:00 p.m., on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, to demand new elections.

The rally is being held under the banner “elections now, we’ll say thank you afterwards,” a reference to reports, denied by the Prime Minister’s Office, that Sara Netanyahu complained that the more than 100 hostages freed from Hamas captivity during a truce in late November did not adequately express their gratitude to her and her husband.

Scheduled speakers include Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan has been held hostage in Gaza since October 7.

Other demonstrations were expected in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and other cities and towns across the country.

Protesters calling for the release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since the October 7 attacks block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv during a protest on February 10, 2024. The banner says ‘The lifespan of the government does not come at the expense of the lives of the hostages.’ (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Organizers of the protests demanding fresh elections have also announced a rally to be held near the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday evening.

The Haaretz daily reported Friday that police were gearing up for Saturday night’s anti-government protests with an increased number of units from both the national and border police (as opposed to just local police) as the protests grow in strength.

The outlet said Friday that in an unusual move, Tel Aviv Police District Commander Peretz Amar had written to a number of individuals identified as leaders of the protests, and warned them that police would take action.

The report said that the letter from Amar was titled “real risk to human life,” and referred to “large groups of citizens organized in advance” to block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv.

“Such activities are dangerous and illegal,” the letter read. “I am warning you of the danger in continuing these activities and want to make it clear that the police will act within their powers to enforce the law and prevent danger to the public,” the letter read.

Newly appointed Tel Aviv police commander Peretz Amar at a handover ceremony in Tel Aviv, July 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Activist Benny Zweig told the outlet that he was among those who received the letter and said that he is followed by detectives: “They want to intimidate us.”

Amar was appointed last year after his predecessor, Amichai Eshed, said he was removed from his post for his refusal to “break bones” at rallies against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul — far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir had been outraged by Eshed’s refusal to use greater force against the demonstrators.

The government’s popularity has plummeted since the beginning of the war, leading to growing calls for elections. It has faced blame over its failure to prevent the October 7 massacre, while some have charged it has fumbled when dealing with key matters relating to the conflict.

Among criticisms of Netanyahu has been his reluctance to confront his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over the controversial issue of the Haredi draft, especially given the army’s manpower shortage amid the war.

Ultra-Orthodox men after clashes during a protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, as a group of male and female soldiers stand behind them, March 4, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In a step that could have deep political and societal ramifications, the High Court of Justice issued an interim order Thursday evening barring the government from providing funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students eligible for IDF enlistment — as the legal framework for deferring their military service will no longer exist from April 1.

A Channel 12 poll aired earlier this month found that a potential coalition led by National Unity party leader and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz would secure 69 of the Knesset’s 120 seats if elections were held today, compared to a bloc led by Netanyahu, which would win only 46 seats.

When asked who they would like to see as prime minister, more respondents said Gantz over Netanyahu, by a margin of 41% to 29%.

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