ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 195

Hili Cooper (with microphone) and Or Nohomovitch (right), tell protesters how they miss their grandfather, Amiram Cooper, held hostage in Gaza, at a rally for the release of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas terrorists, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
Hostage families call for the release of their loved ones at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024 (Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
Inside story

They may cry ‘shame!’ at PM, but hostage families’ group says it has no partisan agenda

‘They’re speaking out against the person in charge,’ explains families’ forum member; ‘When hostages were seized, no one asked about their families’ political stance,’ says another

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

Hostage families call for the release of their loved ones at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024 (Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

It was day 127 of the war and at yet another Saturday night rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, the crowd of thousands began chanting “Shame! Shame!” in support of the message of the speaker, Danny Elgarat, whose brother Itzik Elgarat was abducted on October 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Elgarat was lambasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what he termed a “scare campaign” against retrieving the hostages.

“Netanyahu has started his scare campaign. We’re familiar with those: ‘Peres will divide Jerusalem’; ‘the Arabs are arriving in droves to vote’; ‘the Iranian nuclear project.’ And now he’s scaring us that there will be a massacre if we accept the terms of the deal [with Hamas for a swap of hostages for prisoners],” said Elgarat.

In previous weeks when the crowd started to shout “Shame!” a rally organizer would immediately hush them, reminding them that this was not a political rally but a gathering with one purpose only: to free the hostages.

This time, however, the “Shame” chant continued for about a minute before everyone quieted down.

“They’re speaking out against the person in charge, and the person in charge is Netanyahu,” said Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador to France who heads the diplomacy team at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, an organization that is aiding the hostage families and that organizes the rallies.

“If they’re critical of the government, it doesn’t make the discourse more political,” said Shek. “It’s simply the relations between people who feel abandoned and don’t want to be abandoned again.”

Danny Elgarat, brother of hostage Itzik Elgarat, speaking February 10, 2024, at Tel Aviv Hostages Square (Courtesy Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

A forum gathers

But politics have entered the discourse, partially because of the personalities that have led the Forum, a group of volunteers formed within 72 hours of the deadly Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7 by Dudi Zalmonovitz, a lawyer whose daughter had been at the Supernova desert rave and escaped, while another relative was taken hostage.

During the multipronged Hamas October 7 invasion of Israel, terrorists killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and kidnapped another 253. Some 350 were mown down at the outdoor Supernova music festival alone.

In the days following the massacre, public figures joined Zalmonovitz, including communications adviser Ronen Tzur, who in 2006 briefly served as a Labor party Knesset member, and public relations consultant Haim Rubinstein, who left his Haredi home at 15 and was the spokesperson for Yesh Atid Knesset member Ofer Shelah.

Additional founders included former Shin Bet head Ya’akov Peri, who is a former MK for Yesh Atid; communications consultant Hagit Klaiman, who worked for years with former justice minister Tzipi Livni, head of the now-defunct centrist Hatnua party; and Shimshon Liebman, who headed the effort that led to the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011.

By October 9, the Forum had held its first press conference for the families. Teams were set up to handle hostage negotiations, legal issues, media, fundraising and emotional support for the families.

Family members of Israelis being held hostage in Gaza hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, October 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

At the end of October, Zalmanovitz left and the Forum continued with Tzur at the helm.

In the meantime, a second, much smaller, hostage family group, the Tikva Forum, was formed in opposition to the “main” forum’s tactics. The Tikva Forum, founded by largely pro-government religious Zionist parents of hostages, opposes any demonstrations, rallies or marches that can be construed as pressuring the government into making concessions to Hamas.

Tikva Forum co-founder Tzvika Mor told The Times of Israel that he and other members are spreading a message of what he calls “collective responsibility,” so that Israel “doesn’t repeat the error of the Shalit deal.” Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier taken hostage in 2006, was released in a prisoner swap in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and prisoners held by Israel.

At least six Israelis were murdered in the four years following the Shalit swap by terrorists released under the deal. Among those released was Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the October 7 massacre in southern Israel.

Exit Ronen Tzur

Earlier this week, Tzur quit, claiming that Knesset members had told hostage families they would only provide support if he stepped down.

According to media sources, several dozen families signed a petition asking Tzur to leave, as they wanted a leader with fewer political leanings. For now, the families said, they plan to appoint a team from among their ranks to lead the effort.

Ronen Tzur, a spokesperson for the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, attends an event at ‘Hostages Square,’ calling on the Israeli government to act for immediate release of the hostages on October 28, 2023. (Gili Yaari /FLASH90)

Tzur has a long history as a communications specialist, including for Benny Gantz’s centrist Israel Resilience party in 2018. That same year, he was also contracted to help accused sex offender Malka Leifer avoid extradition to Australia, where she was ultimately convicted.

Some local media commentators claimed Tzur’s efforts to help the hostages stemmed from his political ambitions and his desire to bring Netanyahu down. Right-leaning journalist Kalman Liebskind wrote in Maariv that “entrusting the issue of the abductees, which was supposed to be the biggest consensus in Israel, into [Tzur’s] hands was a suicidal move” due to “the way he chooses to incite the families of the abductees against the government, at the heavy price of placing them at the center of a political debate.”

Tzur dismissed the claim, telling The Times of Israel that there has never been “any political activity” at Forum headquarters.

“This is another abominable lie spread by Liebskind in his role as a service provider to politicians even at the cost of abandoning the hostages,” Tzur said. “This is an active channel of hatred that breaks up Israeli society and sows hatred among brothers… Kalman is a man of faith like me, and as men of faith we know that his reward for spreading slander, hatred and division will come from the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Meanwhile, the families of the hostages say the only thing that matters is freeing the remaining 134 captives in Gaza.

There are more important things than appointments and political struggles, this is about human rights and people

“Nothing else matters,” said Ruby Chen, father of hostage Itay Chen, speaking about Tzur on Channel 12. “There are more important things than appointments and political struggles; this is about human rights and people.”

Politics have no place in the hostage discussion, said communications consultant Klaiman, who has been organizing the hostage rallies. And the hostage families want to keep politics out of the conversation. “When the hostages were abducted, no one asked if they were right-wing or center or left or what their families’ political stance was,” she said.

“Sadly, there are people who are trying to tag the families as right or left or political at all,” said Klaiman. “It’s painful to the families that there’s this attempt to paint them politically. It’s absurd and it angers them.”

Protesters voice their anger with the government outside the Knesset on January 15, 2024, marking 100 days since October 7, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Simple citizens in a political game

The hostage families never imagined that they would have to deal with a battle of political strategy against the government played out in the media, said media adviser Tal Alexandrovitz-Segev, who once worked for the Labor party’s former science, culture and sports minister Matan Vilnai.

“It’s a terrible situation that they’re stuck in and they understand that they have to bring their loved ones home and that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Alexandrovitz-Segev, who is advising several hostage families, but not as part of the Forum.

When the first rally for the hostages was held on October 28, it was meant purely as a way for the families and their supporters to cry out in public, “because all those days and weeks [after October 7], the hostages were still in Gaza,” said Klaiman. “There was no politics in it.”

Now, the weekly Saturday night hostage rallies attract thousands, with speakers addressing the audience from a podium set up in the so-called Hostages Square, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

The only instruction they get from us is that the speech shouldn’t be political, and that’s what the families have requested

The location is significant because it faces the back of the Defense Ministry compound. Speakers stand at the podium and say their piece, shouting in the direction of Netanyahu and the rest of the war cabinet.

There’s only one instruction that Klaiman and the Forum team give to the speakers, “who come from all over the spectrum, right-wing, left-wing, religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, even the daughter of [former Sephardic chief rabbi] Ovadia Yosef,” said Klaiman. “The only instruction they get from us is that the speech shouldn’t be political, and that’s what the families have requested.”

Speakers’ remarks aren’t vetted, some speakers don’t use notes, and anyone who wants to speak is welcome to, said Klaiman.

Protesters call for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

The speakers are often family members of the hostages, visiting dignitaries or others who “come along by chance,” said Shek.

Over the last few weeks, however, some in the crowd have yelled at hostage family members as they spoke, accusing them of being left-wingers in their demands for a deal for the hostages.

Anyone who does that “has the emotional capacity of a bulldozer,” said Shek. “Who would allow themselves to yell at people who are in this kind of deep trauma?”

Any deal to free the hostages would almost certainly require releasing a large number of Palestinian security prisoners, with Hamas demanding that those with blood on their hands be set free, as well as a truce in the IDF’s campaign against the Hamas regime in Gaza. Some believe that kind of deal would backfire on Israel in the future, laying the groundwork for another series of Hamas attacks.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza, not all of them alive. A hundred and five civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages were rescued by troops, and the bodies of 11 hostages have 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 is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding two Israelis, 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.

“We’ve understood the whole time that there’s this tension between the goal of getting the hostages home and the war,” said Alexandrovitz-Segev. “The deal needs to be kept alive, but it’s a tough deal. There isn’t another solution. And there aren’t politics at play here, but when the tension grows, you feel the pressure.”

Hostage families lobby at Knesset for release of their loved ones ones on January 9, 2024 (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ramping up of separate anti-government protests

Anti-government protests calling for new elections have also been taking place for the past two months in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities on Saturday nights, prior to the gatherings held for the hostages.

These are not related to the weekly rallies organized by the Forum for the hostages and their families, said Forum organizers, though some people attend both. But the chant of “Shame!” heard at the hostages rally recently was the same one heard at weekly Saturday night anti-government rallies held in Tel Aviv and other cities for the first nine months of 2023 to protest the judicial overhaul plan.

“Hostages Square is for the hostage families, and it’s disconnected from everything else,” Klaiman said. “These families just want their loved ones back.”

Protesters lift placards and flags during an anti-government demonstration at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on February 10, 2024, calling for new elections and the release of the hostages. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Alexandrovitz-Segev insisted that while both sets of weekly rallies were growing stronger, they were two separate matters and shouldn’t be seen as mixed.

At the Forum, efforts are focused on representing all of the hostage families, said Klaiman, including families who say they don’t want a deal that entails freeing Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel.

Former diplomat Shek said he “likes to say that the Forum doesn’t work for the government — we don’t work against them, we work next to them.” He added, “Sometimes in the issue of handling hostages, our tone is not same as the government’s and we don’t hide it — there are gaps.”

The organization “works in a huge amount of chaos, positivity, goodwill, good vibes and hope,” said Shek.

That said, he added, its members come from different backgrounds.

“No one has a tabula rasa,” Shek said. “What people did in their past work has nothing to do with what they’re doing now. They came to help people in a moment of great trouble that fell on the country… We’re all focused on helping the families.”

Mati Wagner contributed to this report.

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