ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Slim majority believes return of hostages should be primary war aim in Gaza — poll

While 47% of Jewish Israelis support prioritizing the return of the hostages, 60% say a deal must not come at the cost of halting the war against Hamas

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under increasing public pressure to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, with a narrow majority of Israelis prioritizing their return over toppling Hamas as the country’s primary war aim in Gaza.

Just over half of Israelis (51 percent) expressed support for such a policy, which rose to 69% among Arab Israelis, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s January 2024 Israeli Voice Index, a monthly survey of national public opinion.

Among Jewish Israelis, opinions were more evenly split, with 47% expressing support for prioritizing the return of the hostages and 42% saying that removing Hamas from power should take precedence. Only 8% of Arab Israelis said that they considered the defeat of Hamas to be a higher priority.

Israel launched its military campaign in Gaza after thousands of terrorists invaded the south of the country on October 7, rampaging through communities and killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking another estimated 253 people hostage.

Israel believes over 130 hostages remain in Gaza, not all of them alive. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Despite Netanyahu’s assertion that “only military pressure” will lead to the hostages’ release, more and more Israelis have taken to the street to call on his government to accept a framework for a prisoner swap with Hamas.

Families of hostages held in Gaza march to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 12, 2023, demanding a resumption of negotiations (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Relatives of the hostages have told The Times of Israel that they feel like they have “been forgotten” and that it is critical to negotiate an agreement with Hamas as soon as possible.

Testifying before the newly established Knesset caucus on victims of sexual and gender violence in the war against Hamas last month, released hostages described the horrors being inflicted on those remaining in Gaza.

“The terrorists bring inappropriate clothes, clothes for dolls and turn the girls into their dolls. Dolls on a string with which you can do whatever you want, whenever you want,” testified Aviva Siegel, who was abducted on October 7 from Kibbutz Kfar Aza with her husband Keith, who remains in captivity.

Netanyahu has ruled out releasing thousands of Palestinian prisoners for the hostages. He has also rejected a key Hamas demand — ending the war and withdrawing the IDF — as a condition for any further hostage releases, insisting that the war will end only when Hamas is destroyed and all hostages released.

During a Likud faction meeting on Monday, the prime minister touted the fact that Israel had already secured the freedom of 110 of the hostages during a temporary truce in November and said that while he would “continue to act on this issue… Hamas has demands that we will not agree to.”

“The formula to their freedom should be similar to the previous agreement,” but the remaining hostages’ return “will not be realized at any cost,” he declared, predicting that Israel will achieve a “complete victory over Hamas” within a relatively short period.

“We will kill the Hamas leadership, so we must continue to act in all areas of the Gaza Strip. The war must not end before then. It will take time — months, not years.”

IDF forces operates in Gaza in this undated handout photo released February 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Despite many believing that rescuing the hostages must take precedence over military victory, 60% of Jewish Israelis believe that such a deal must not come at the price of “releasing all Palestinian prisoners and halting the fighting in Gaza,” according to a previous Israel Democracy Institute poll released in late January.

A small majority — 53% of left-leaning Jews, 46% of those in the center and 24% on the right supported such a deal, as did 78.5% of Arab Israelis.

Opposition politicians have also pushed Netanyahu to accept a deal, with Labor leader Merav Michaeli arguing that “an agreement that will include a cessation of hostilities” is the only way to secure the hostages’ freedom.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Following a meeting with Netanyahu on Monday evening, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told reporters that he had offered to enter the government to replace ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in order to provide backing for a deal.

“I told the prime minister — I am not interested in portfolios, I was foreign minister, I was finance minister, I was prime minister. I am interested in one thing — returning the hostages,” Lapid announced.

“And if he needs a safety net of any kind from me — by entering the government, from the outside, in any way — just tell me. Because the important thing is to bring home the hostages,” he said.

Ben Gvir last week threatened to bring down the government if what he described as a “reckless” deal was reached.

Times of Israel staff and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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