Tel Aviv rally urges global backing for hostages; clashes at nearby anti-gov’t protest

Man who lost six family members on October 7 taken to hospital after allegedly being beaten by right-wing activist; protesters block highway, light bonfires

Footage shows protesters marching on the Ayalon Highway (Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement); Gadi Kedem, who lost six of his family members on October 7, seen beaten by a right-wing activist (Social media/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law); police using a water cannon on protesters on Kaplan Street (Benny Meshy/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement); protesters block Ayalon Highway (Yael Gadot/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement), Tel Aviv, May 18, 2024.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square for an emotional rally on Saturday night headlined by American and European diplomats and world-renowned Israeli popstars.

Just a few blocks away, anti-government protesters, including bereaved and hostage families, skirmished with police equipped with horses and water cannons.

In one incident at the weekly anti-government protest, Gadi Kedem, who lost six of his family members on October 7, said he was beaten by a right-wing activist carrying a sign reading “leftist traitors.”

Police arrested two people suspected of the attack, and medics took Kedem to a local hospital.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid denounced the attack on Kedem, calling it “impossible to accept” violence against bereaved family members and relatives of the hostages.

“Nothing can be expected from the police minister [far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir], but the police commissioner [Kobi Shabtai] needs to stop it immediately — where is he?” Lapid wrote on X.

Demonstrators block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv during a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government, May 18, 2024. (Dor Pazuelo/Flash90)

Police said that they arrested one protester for illegally demonstrating after the authorized protest had ended, and issued a total of NIS 1,000 ($271) in fines. Demonstrators managed to block Ayalon Highway and light bonfires before they were dispersed.

In Hostages Square, the “international rally” put together by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum was the first of its kind, designed to garner the attention of the global community and rally other countries to put pressure on Hamas to release the 128 hostages still held in the Gaza Strip.

“‘Bring them home’ is the demand that we, Israel’s citizens, must make of our government. But from you, citizens of the world, we need to hear a different demand, a demand to the Hamas terror regime — let them go, now,” said former Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy, who gave the rally’s opening remarks and emceed the event.

But the demonstration seemed to be directed just as much toward the Israelis in Hostages Square, numbering over 100,000 according to organizers, who responded enthusiastically to assurances of support from Hillary Clinton, Dr. Phil and other top diplomats.

To emphasize the universality of the ongoing hostage crisis, family members whose captive loved ones hold foreign citizenship were highlighted. On the backdrop of the stage at the front of the crowd stood an array of flags representing the countries in which the 128 hostages hold citizenship.

‘October Rain’

Interspersed between speeches from hostage families and foreign diplomats were musical performances by famed Israeli musicians including Noga Erez, Lola Marsh and two Eurovision stars — Netta Barzilai and Israel’s 2024 contestant Eden Golan.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Later in the evening, Golan performed her disqualified Eurovision song “October Rain” for the first time to the public. Countless people raised their phones to record her performance, which left many in the crowd teary-eyed.

The song was originally meant to be performed at the contest, but the European Broadcasting Union rejected it for having political messaging. Golan reworked the lyrics and title and qualified for the contest, coming fifth place with a reworded version, called “Hurricane.”

The original song includes lyrics such as “writers of the history/stand with me”; “I’m still wet from the October rain/October rain”; and a final section in Hebrew translated to: “There is no air left to breathe/No place, no me from day to day/They were all good kids, every one of them” — believed to be a reference to those murdered by Hamas on October 7.

Israeli singer Eden Golan at a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Drumming up global support

Many of the highest-profile speakers addressed the crowd in pre-recorded videos, which were then played on the screens erected throughout Hostages Square.

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton expressed her sympathy to the hostage families in a pre-recorded message, mentioning that she has met with relatives of the Hamas captives in the past.

“They are our fellow men and women and yes, children. They should be freed immediately,” said the former diplomat. “Actions should be taken immediately to bring them home.”

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives pre-recorded speech to hostage rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on May 18, 2024. (Screenshot)

In addition to Clinton, the ambassadors to Israel from Austria, Germany, the US and the UK gave speeches reiterating their countries’ support for Israel and commitment to the hostages.

“Today marks 225 days since innocents were ripped from their loved ones — children from their parents, parents from their children,” said US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew.

“To the family members of those held hostage, we hear you, we stand with you, we will not stop working until you are reunited with your loved ones … The United States continues to press ahead with negotiations to bring the hostages home,” he added.

German Ambassador to Israel Stefan Seibert was the only ambassador to address the crowd solely in Hebrew, proudly stating that Berlin now has a Hostages Square of its own, inaugurated earlier this week as the home for art installation to raise German awareness of the hostages issue.

German ambassador to Israel Stefan Seibert speaks to rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on May 18, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

“We must tell everyone that there is nothing more important than bringing the abductees home. This should be the ultimate goal,” he said.

‘Even my tears are broken’

Yael Alexander, the mother of Edan Alexander, a lone soldier from New Jersey who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, told the audience that she feels she “failed in her role as a mother.”

“If I could magically turn the big clock behind me — that counts their days in Gaza — back to before your enlistment, I would have said: ‘Edan, go to college, don’t enlist because everything we told you about this state sadly belongs to the past,’” she said.

“I discovered after October 7 that the country changed its face,” she continued, quoting from a famous Israeli protest song. “I sadly discovered that there is currently no brave and strong representative leadership that knows how to decide, and make difficult decisions.”

Rachel Goldberg-Polin, the mother of American-Israeli Hersh Goldberg-Polin who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, spoke in English at the rally, thanking the foreign ambassadors who spoke for “not only standing up for their own citizens, but standing up for other citizens of the world who are still being held hostage in Gaza after 225 days.”

Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of Hamas captive Hersh Goldberg-Polin, speaks to hostage rally in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2024. (Hostages and Missing Families Forum/Paulina Patimer)

Goldberg-Polin dryly recalled an anecdote from earlier in the week about a visit to the eye doctor, in which she found out her “tear quality is very poor.”

“I found [that] so intriguing, since I thought all I have done over these past seven months is to perfect the art of crying, and now I come to find out that even my tears are broken,” she said.

Last month, Hamas released a video showing Hersh Goldberg-Polin alive with his left arm missing, reading a scripted message in Hebrew.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, speakers at this week’s hostages rally in Paris Square were harsher in their criticism of the government, with one speaker, Orly Erez-Luhovsky of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, denouncing far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

Ayala Metzger, whose father-in-law, the elderly Yoram Metzger, is currently captive to Hamas in Gaza also spoke to the protesters.

“You are their voice, and they need us,” she said. “Time is our enemy, and theirs. And everyone who wastes time is also our enemy.”

Ayala Metzger, daughter-in-law of Hamas hostage Yoram Metzger, leads demonstration in support of a hostage deal outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, May 18, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Later in the night, some 200 protesters, a smaller group than the one that gathered at Paris Square, showed up to demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s Office, as the war cabinet was thought to have met inside.

The protests came a day after the bodies of four hostages — Shani Louk, Amit Buskila, Itzhak Gelerenter and Ron Benjamin — were discovered by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and brought back to Israel for burial.

From left to right: Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila, and Shani Louk. (Courtesy)

News that the body of Benjamin had also been recovered along with the other three — whose retrieval had been announced on Friday — was revealed just before the rally began on Saturday evening.

Ron Benjamin was killed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and his body was taken to Gaza. On May 18, 2024, the IDF announced it had recovered his remains in an overnight operation. (Courtesy)

On Friday, Channel 12 quoted a senior member of Israel’s hostage negotiating team as saying that a decision by Netanyahu’s government to further expand the IDF’s operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah would put hostages’ lives at risk.

Such warnings have been made by foreign officials, but this is the first time that they have been echoed — albeit anonymously — by a senior member of Israel’s own negotiating team, which is led by Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and IDF general Nitzan Alon.

Netanyahu and other members of his government have insisted that military pressure, such as the operation in Rafah, is what will coax Hamas into agreeing to a hostage deal.

Emanuel Fabian and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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