Inside story'We're switching gears. We feel it's right to push the government'

Six months after October 7, some hostage families embracing anti-government protests

No longer willing to keep their anger in check, a group of relatives of those held captive by terrorists in Gaza are speaking out against the prime minister and his cabinet

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Einav Zangauker, mother of Matan Zangauker, who is held hostage in Gaza, demands the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhyahu, at a demonstration with other relatives of hostages outside the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2024 (Nevet Kahana / Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)
Einav Zangauker, mother of Matan Zangauker, who is held hostage in Gaza, demands the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhyahu, at a demonstration with other relatives of hostages outside the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2024 (Nevet Kahana / Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

As 129 hostages, and their loved ones, mark six months since they were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, some of the families have changed their tone, adopting an anti-government stance that reflects their immense anger, sadness and disappointment in the leaders who haven’t brought them home.

“My brother is not back, and I see this as a failure of the prime minister and the government,” said Yotam Cohen in a conversation with The Times of Israel.

Cohen’s brother, Nimrod Cohen, was taken hostage on October 7 from Nahal Oz, near the Gaza border.

“We’re in a place of fear, anger and fury,” said Cohen. “We thought he’d come back, but the deal is still far from happening and the only logical explanation is that the government doesn’t want it,” referring to indirect on-and-off negotiations with Hamas being mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the US.

In the six months since 253 hostages were taken captive to Gaza — dragged by Hamas terrorists across kibbutz fields, tossed onto the backs of pickup trucks and motorcycles, driven in golf carts and cars through the streets of Gaza to unknown destinations — their families have struggled ceaselessly to bring them home.

The families are regularly in touch with heads of state, politicians and diplomats. They are frequently interviewed in the media. They speak at rallies and gatherings, working to find various way to keep their loved ones in the public eye.

300 yoga practitioners do 108 sun salutations on January 22, 2024, the 108th day of captivity for the hostages and Carmel Gat, a hostage and yogi (Courtesy Dalit Elan)

They have held dance parties at Hostages Square, along with sun salutation yoga events and prayer circles, dedicated the writing of Torah scrolls and baked challah, created banners and T-shirts and signs, and shouted “Bring them home!” until their voices were gone.

They have walked miles in marches dedicated to the hostages and slept in tents outside the Defense Ministry and the Knesset. Some have spoken with the pope and Elon Musk, met with world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos and sat with US President Joe Biden.

Many of them don’t sleep or eat much, with every waking hour dedicated to the task of bringing their loved ones home.

But now, six months after October 7, some of these families have lost faith in the ability of the Israeli government, the war cabinet and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do just that.

Nimrod Cohen’s father, Yehuda Cohen, spoke at the main Tel Aviv demonstration for the hostages last Saturday and, in a fiery speech, said he had asked Netanyahu what price Israel is willing to pay to return his son but did not get an answer.

Yotam Cohen, brother of hostage Nimrod Cohen, speaking at a Hostages and Missing Families Forum rally on March 3, 2024 (Courtesy)

Cohen said at the time that if Netanyahu cannot bring his son home, he should resign and let someone else try.

“We met with the prime minister and the head of the Shin Bet and the whole political and security chain. We met with all of them and they say they’re trying and still the hostages aren’t home,” said Yotam Cohen. “It’s their failure.”

This anti-government sentiment is a significant departure from both the tone and messaging employed by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the volunteer organization that got started 72 hours after October 7 in its efforts to support the hostage families.

The Forum organizes weekly Saturday night rallies and four-day marches, handles diplomatic relations and press, and prints posters and placards, shirts, hoodies and umbrellas.

But while the Forum has chosen to remain diplomatic vis-à-vis the government in its ongoing efforts to free the hostages, some of the hostage families have adopted a different point of view.

Cohen said his family tried to stay neutral and not blame the government, but it couldn’t do so any longer.

Screen capture from video of Ayala Metzger, whose father-in-law Yoram Metzger is held captive in the Gaza Strip, as she joined other families of captive in calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 30, 2024. (Channel12. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

They, along with Ayala Metzger and Einav Zangauker — whose father-in-law, Yoram Metzger, 80, and eldest son, Matan Zangauker, 24, respectively, were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz — are some of those who have lost patience with the government and aren’t willing to remain silent.

“I’m done,” said Metzger, who was dragged by police amid scuffles between protesters and cops outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem last week on the second day of a four-day protest outside the Knesset.

“Bibi is torpedoing the talks. He’s keeping his people on a short rope and keeps sending them and bringing him back,” said Metzger, using the prime minister’s nickname. She was referring to Mossad chief David Barnea and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, who have been participating in the talks with Qatar and Egypt on a ceasefire and hostage release deal.

The protests outside the Knesset this week were organized by a wide range of anti-government organizations and activist groups calling for early elections, but the Hostages Forum didn’t participate and neither did most of the hostage families.

Einav Zangauker, the mother of Hamas-held hostage Matan Zangauker, gives an impromptu speech outside  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence on April 2, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

On Tuesday night, Zangauker, a Sderot resident who has voted for Netanyahu in the past, addressed the crowd or protesters and decried the prime minister as a “Pharaoh who inflicts on us the plague of the firstborn.”

“As long as my Matan has no day or night, neither will you,” she said in a speech directed at Netanyahu. “You failed on October 7 in every possible way… you are an obstacle to a hostage deal,” she declared.

Metzger agrees. “We understand that he’s an obstacle,” he said, “we will get him out and I will do whatever I can to move him from that chair.”

Cohen said he and his family feel they don’t have a choice any longer. “We went to all the rallies on Saturday nights,” he said. “Now we’re switching gears. We’re going more to the protests. The rallies don’t do anything. What will bring them back is to push the government.”

He, like Metzger, hasn’t left the Forum, but recognizes that not all the families see things the same way.

Some families, however, aren’t budging from the Forum or its positions.

Meirav Leshem-Gonen, mother of Romi Leshem, and one of the representatives of the hostage families, told The Times of Israel this week that the hostages have no connection to politics and can’t be used as a political tool.

“There are families that have their considerations, and they may be from the [political] right or from the left,” said Leshem Gonen. “But the Forum is for everyone and that’s how it will remain. The prime minister doesn’t interest me. He has a job and a responsibility and his task is to bring them home.”

In any case, the dissenters haven’t abandoned the Forum nor given up on its activities.

Cohen, for example, is heading to Malta next week to speak with local politicians in a meeting organized by the Forum diplomatic team.

“We’ll still meet with politicians and ambassadors of all kinds,” he said, “but inside Israel, we feel that it’s right to push the government and Bibi. He is the leader, he was chosen and the responsibility is his to bring them all home.”

Charlie Summers contributed to this report.

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