Hostage families call on public to join 'protests of fury'

Smotrich says bringing hostages home ‘not the most important thing,’ sparking outcry

Far-right minister says Israel needs to focus on destroying Hamas, slams those who call for a deal ‘at any price’; Gantz and Lapid condemn his comments

Eli Albag, father of hostage Liri Albag, speaks to protesters outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv, soon after Finance Minster Bezalel Smotrich said returning the hostages was 'not the most important thing'. February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Eli Albag, father of hostage Liri Albag, speaks to protesters outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv, soon after Finance Minster Bezalel Smotrich said returning the hostages was 'not the most important thing'. February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich sparked fury and protests on Tuesday after saying that securing the return of the hostages was “not the most important thing” for Israel to worry about at the moment and the government’s primary focus should be destroying Hamas.

Speaking in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, the far-right minister was asked if, in his view, bringing back the 134 captives who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip since the October 7 Hamas onslaught was the most important goal.

“No,” he replied. “It’s not the most important thing.”

“Why make it a competition? Why is it so important at the moment?” he asked. “We need to destroy Hamas. That is very important.”

Smotrich also lashed out at those who are calling for a deal that would bring the hostages home “at any price.”

“‘At any price’ is a problem. We have to return the hostages and we have to put pressure on Hamas,” he said.

Minister of Finance and Head of the Religious Zionism Party Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following the publication of Smotrich’s comments, family members of the hostages who were holding a vigil outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv reacted furiously, moving to block several main roads in protest.

They also issued a call to the general public to come and join them in a “protest of fury” against the government and threatened to “set the streets on fire.”

“Mr. Smotrich, let them take your children and I will stand in the road and shout, ‘It’s not the most important thing,” said Eli Albag, whose 18-year-old daughter Liri is still being held by Hamas.

“I say to the people of Israel, whoever thinks the hostages are not important, let them take your children hostage, then you can speak. Because we have been suffering for 137 days, every day, every minute. We don’t sleep at night,” he said.

Some demonstrators tried to stop the cars of ministers from entering the IDF headquarters where the war cabinet was set to convene for a meeting.

Several politicians also reacted angrily to Smotrich’s comments, including war cabinet minister Benny Gantz.

“The return of the hostages is not only our goal in the war, it is our moral imperative as a country and as a people,” Gantz posted on X. “It is the most urgent thing. We will not miss any opportunity to bring them home.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid called Smotrich’s words a “moral disgrace.”

“Smotrich’s attack on the families of the hostages is a moral disgrace. Heartless people cannot continue to lead the State of Israel into the abyss,” Lapid said.

“Smotrich, on your watch and that of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, 1,200 Israelis were murdered, on your watch, Israeli citizens were kidnapped, tortured and raped. You are responsible for their fate,” he said. “Without the return of the hostages, Israel will not win.”

Smotrich later defended his remarks and rejected the attacks on him.

“I’m shocked that there are those who would use the hostages to score political points,” he said. “I was asked in an interview ‘What is more important?’ I said it does not have to be a competition, the way to return the hostages is to put pressure on Hamas.”

Families of Israelis held in Hamas captivity protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel has seen large protests, led by relatives of the hostages, urging the government to reach a deal with Hamas that would see the remaining captives freed.

But talks led by the US, Qatar and Egypt to secure the release of the remaining hostages and a truce in the war have stalled. Netanyahu refused to send a delegation to Cairo last week for discussions on a potential deal until Hamas softened its demands, which the premier called “delusional.”

The terror group’s demands include moves toward a permanent ceasefire, a withdrawal of troops from Gaza, reconstruction of the enclave and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, among them numerous convicted killers and terror masterminds, in exchange for the remaining hostages taken on October 7. Israel has said such demands are a non-starter.

Netanyahu reiterated his position Tuesday during a visit with the IDF Artillery Corps’ elite Sky Riders Unit at the Zikim military base.

Speaking to the soldiers, the prime minister vowed that Israel will continue to war against Hamas in Gaza until all its goals are achieved, including the destruction of the terror group and the release of the hostages.

“There is a lot of pressure on Israel, at home and abroad, to end the war before we achieve all of its goals, including [agreeing to] a deal to release the hostages at any cost,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.

“We really want to achieve an additional [hostage] release, and we are also willing to go a long way, but we are not ready to pay any price, and certainly not to pay the delusional price that Hamas demands from us, which would mean defeat for the state of Israel,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with The IDF Artillery Corps’ elite Sky Riders Unit, also known by its Hebrew acronym Rochash in Zikim, February 20, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Mediators are said to be pushing to secure a truce and hostage deal before Israel proceeds with a planned wide-scale ground operation in Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 30 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively, as well as the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

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