Thousands expected at protests in Tel Aviv marking hostages’ six months in captivity

Rallies across country also to call for elections as anger mounts against government, increasingly blamed for failure to secure release of Hamas-held captives in Gaza

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis were expected to join with families of the hostages in Tel Aviv on Saturday night for protests that will mark six months since the captives were abducted to Gaza during the October 7 Hamas onslaught.

Demonstrators were set to gather at Begin Street outside the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, calling on the government to reach a deal to secure the release of the 134 people who remain in Hamas captivity. In contrast to previous weeks, there was no major gathering planned for nearby Hostages Square, although a prayer and song session was scheduled there for 9.30 p.m.

In addition to the hostage protest, a separate demonstration calling for early elections was scheduled for 7.30 p.m. at the Kaplan junction in Tel Aviv — where months of major protests were held before October 7 against the government’s judicial overhaul efforts.

Numerous other protests were planned across the country, including one outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home in the seaside town of Caesarea.

The past week has seen an increasing convergence between the protests of the families and the mass anti-government demonstrations that were a weekly event in the months before October 7. Some of the families are accusing Netanyahu of blocking a deal for political reasons.

“Six months where 134 women and men are being abused, starved and raped daily, half a year of criminal abandonment by Netanyahu and all the partners in his cabinet and government who are not doing anything to remove the obstacles from a deal,” organizers said in a statement.

American and Israeli negotiators were expected in Cairo over the weekend for a renewed push to reach a truce-hostage deal.

Israelis hold large photographs of the war cabinet ministers as they block road 16 near the entrance to Jerusalem, while attending a protest calling for the release of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, April 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ahead of the talks, US President Joe Biden wrote to the leaders of Egypt and Qatar urging them to dial up pressure on Hamas to “agree to and abide by a deal,” a senior administration official said on Friday night.

The United States, Qatar and Egypt have engaged for months in behind-the-scenes talks to broker a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, but have made no headway since a week-long truce in November.

The White House confirmed that negotiations would occur this weekend in Cairo, but would not comment on US media reports that CIA Director Bill Burns would be attending, along with Israel spy chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Israel and Hamas, which negotiate through intermediaries, have traded blame for the lack of progress and Israeli officials said they were pessimistic there would be a breakthrough.

The mediators of hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas are failing to exert any pressure on the terror group, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Friday.

Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar “is dragging his feet and does not want a deal, despite Israel’s tremendous flexibility,” the senior Israeli official claimed.

“No pressure [on Hamas] is being jointly applied by the Qatar-led mediators. Qatar has refrained from deporting the Hamas leaders it hosts, nor has it closed their bank accounts, which hold hundreds of millions of dollars used for terrorism,” the senior Israeli official asserted.

“Sinwar does not want a deal. He is not interested in the suffering of his people in Gaza,” the official continued. “He is waiting for tensions to increase and for there to be further escalation.”

The senior official also said Jerusalem has still not received any answer from Hamas to Israel’s latest hostage deal proposal, after CNN reported earlier Friday that the terror organization turned it down.

But as talks have dragged on for months with little sign of progress, anger in Israel has increasingly focused on the government, which has been accused of playing politics and pandering to hard right elements.

The government’s popularity has plummeted since October 7, leading to growing calls for elections. It has faced blame over its failure to prevent the massacre, while some have charged it has continued to fumble ever since when dealing with key matters relating to the war.

This week saw a series of protests in Jerusalem over four consecutive days, organized jointly by anti-Netanyahu activists and central family members in the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. Some members of the forum announced that they would discontinue separate weekly Saturday night protests and join forces with anti-government activists.

During a demonstration on Tuesday, demonstrators breached barricades to reach the area near Netanyahu’s private residence on Jerusalem’s Azza Street while he was home.

Police in Jerusalem try to push back people in a protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and for the release of the hostages on April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

War in Gaza broke out on October 7, when Hamas stormed across the border, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians in their homes and at a music festival, and taking 253 people hostage.

It is believed that 129 hostages 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 12 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 34 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 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.

Hamas claims 33,000 Gazans have been killed inside the Strip since October 7, an unverifiable figure that does not distinguish between gunmen and civilians; Israel says it has killed 13,000 gunmen; over 250 IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

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