'Israel will never forgive itself if they don’t come back'

Thousands rally in Jerusalem after four-day march for hostages’ return

Led by relatives of captives, demonstrators complete trek from Kibbutz Re’im, swelling to 15,000-20,000 people as they reach the capital, protest in city’s Paris Square

Families of hostages and their supporters chant the names of each of the hostages held in Gaza by Hamas, and urge their release, at the entrance to Jerusalem on February 2, 2024 (LH / Times of Israel video)

Thousands of people arrived in Jerusalem Saturday evening in the final stretch of a four-day march calling for the return of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

Media reports put the turnout in the final stretch at some 15,000-20,000 people.

The marchers on Saturday night headed to Paris Square near the Prime Minister’s Office, where they joined Jerusalem’s weekly demonstration for the hostages, significantly boosting its regular numbers.

The mothers of hostages Avinatan Or and Romi Gonen, whom Hamas kidnapped from the Supernova music festival, gave joint speeches onstage.

The two mothers come from starkly different backgrounds but said that despite their religious and political differences, they were united in their desire to bring their children back home.

“Ditza and I may not agree on strategy, what’s more right to do, but we always agree on the strength we have united, on the fact that every one of us is a point of light,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen.

Meirav Leshem Gonen (left) and Ditza Or embrace at a rally calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, in Jerusalem on March 2, 2024. (Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Sigi Cohen, mother of hostage Eliya Cohen, said: “Heroic soldiers are fighting day and night to bring back the hostages and are doing it together, an we too should be united and strong.”

Nissan Kalderon, whose brother Ofer Kalderon is a hostage, told the crowd: “The past few days in which thousands of citizens joined our march filled our hearts with love and our bodies with unity and great hope. This is the mission of our lives.”

Organizers led protesters in counting to 148, the number of days that have passed with Israeli hostages in Hamas captivity.

Activists take part in a rally calling for the return of the hostages, in downtown Jerusalem, March 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The march had started on Wednesday in Kibbutz Rei’im near the Gaza border, the site of a music festival where Hamas terrorists had killed over 350 on October 7 and abducted dozens of others. In total, some 1,200 people were murdered that day and 253 abducted.

A November temporary truce saw the release of 105 hostages, mostly women and children. Four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages were rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages were recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. Of the 130 remaining hostages in Gaza, the IDF has confirmed the deaths of 31 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Among those confirmed dead in captivity is Yossi Sharabi, who was abducted on October 7 from his home in Kibbutz Be’eri together with his brother, Eli Sharabi, who remains in captivity, and his daughter’s boyfriend, 18-year-old Ofir Engel, who was visiting the family for the weekend. Engel was released in November.

At the event Saturday night, Sharon Sharabi, the eldest Sharabi brother said: “Leaders of Israel, we all elected you first and foremost to make peace among ourselves, and inner peace means mutual responsibility for each and every one of us for our brothers and children who have remained behind for almost 150 days now. We stand here week after week counting the seconds of the hostages there without food or water. We stand because our day and night will not rest without them all being here. My brother Yossi’s time sadly ran out, and we will bury him in the land of Israel. My brother Eli and the other hostages we will bring home alive.”

“Eli lost his entire family and Yossi lost his life in captivity,” he said.

Though they were joined by many opposition politicians, the march organizers sought to avoid too-harsh criticism of the current government, opting instead to call for unity with the families of captives while urging the cabinet to reach an immediate hostage release deal.

Earlier, ahead of the march’s arrival at Jerusalem suburb Mevasseret Zion, some 6,000 people gathered near the town’s shopping mall to hear remarks from politicians, relatives of the hostages and freed Hamas captives.

MK Mickey Levy of the Yesh Atid party, a resident and former Knesset speaker, told the crowd that he was “ashamed… that we still haven’t found an answer.”

“Israeli society will never forgive itself if the hostages don’t come back home,” he said.

Mickey Levy speaks to marchers from stage outside Mevaseret Zion mall on last day of hostage families’ unity march to Jerusalem on March 2, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Freed hostages Clara Merman, Fernando Merman, Luis Herr and Gabriella Leimberg joined the march to give families the “courage to continue.”

Fernando Merman and Luis Herr were freed last month in a dramatic IDF special forces operation in Rafah.

“We were there and the danger in captivity is imminent,” Clara Merman said. “The body and the mind still hurt. We will continue to march together with all the people until everyone returns.”

While marching, hostages’ families leading the procession addressed the massive crowds through loudspeakers hooked up to a van moving slowly at the rally’s fore.

Niva Wenkert, mother of hostage Omer Wenkert called for everyone to look around and “see what a wonderful, united and strong nation stands here with us to provide backup to IDF commanders and soldiers, and call with us for the release of the hostages.”

She addressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet members, telling them “it is in your hands. Return hope to the nation – return the hostages.”

Many relatives chose a song to dedicate to their missing loved ones, providing a wistful, yet at-times hopeful soundtrack for the thousands of demonstrators walking along Route 1 to Jerusalem.

Daniel, the brother of kidnapped American lone soldier Omer Neutra, requested Etta James’s song “At Last,” which symbolizes for him the “wonderful day when everyone has returned home.

“You sent these soldiers, you are responsible for returning them,” a friend of Omer’s said, addressing the Israeli government. “You have the ability, you need to come to a comprehensive agreement that will include all the hostages.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid also joined the marchers, greeting family members of the hostages at the front and giving a short speech in support of their cause.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid at the ‘unity march’ from Re’im to Jerusalem on March 2, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

“You ask us whether we are doing enough to return the hostages, and the answer is no,” he says. “If we were doing enough, then they would already be returning home.

“I am with you here, and we are here together, because this country cannot live with the idea that they will not return. There is no other possibility. If we must march, we will march, if we must shout, we will shout… until the hostages return home,” he continued.

Protesters reached Jerusalem in the final hour of Shabbat, and began to sing “Jerusalem of Gold” as city residents emerged from their homes to watch the crowd.

Organizers halted the rally for a moment at the city entrance under the Chords Bridge to read out the names of the 134 hostages who remain in Hamas captivity.

By the time they reached Jerusalem, protesters’ numbers had shrunk from their peak, but thousands remained to see the journey to its end.

Hostage families kick off last day of ‘unity march’ from Re’im to Jerusalem on March 2, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

US President Joe Biden said Friday he was “hoping” for a deal by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins March 10, that could bring a pause to the war between Israel and Hamas and see the release of hostages.

“I’m hoping so, we’re still working real hard on it. We’re not there yet,” he told reporters at the White House.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 31 of those still held by Hamas, citing 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 the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as 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.

Israel and Hamas, which both had delegations in Qatar this week to hammer out details of a potential 40-day truce, have said there is still a big gulf between them, and the Qatari mediators say there is no breakthrough yet.

According to media reports over the weekend, Israel has indicated that it will not participate in further talks until it receives a list of living hostages still held by Hamas.

Axios reported that Qatar and Egypt, which mediate between Israel and Hamas, had coaxed Israel to take part in talks over the past week in Doha by guaranteeing that if an Israeli delegation were sent, they would secure a list of living hostages, and pressure Hamas to back down from its demands regarding the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in return for each Israeli hostage.

But after three days of talks in Doha, the Israeli delegation returned home without any answers on either issue. “The mediators promised that Hamas would give numbers and that didn’t happen,” Axios quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying.

Netanyahu on Thursday evening expressed pessimism that a deal could be sealed, accusing Hamas of continuing to stonewall rather than make a good faith effort at compromise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2024. (Nimrod Klikman/Pool via Flash90)

“We face a brick wall of delusional, unrealistic Hamas demands,” said Netanyahu in a press conference at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that the terrorist group “knows its demands are delusional and is not even trying to move close to an area of agreement. That’s the situation.”

“We are all hopeful, but I’m giving you the current assessment… We continue to act, continue to hope, but I can’t make a promise at this moment” that a deal will be done, he said, because such a promise would “have no cover.”

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