‘We won’t stop’: Separate weekly rallies to push for hostage deal, new elections

Various protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere will maintain pressure on government to free Gaza captives, set new date for national polls

Demonstrators call for the release of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
File: Demonstrators call for the release of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The families of Israeli hostages held in Gaza were set to hold their weekly rally in Tel Aviv Saturday evening to press for an agreement, as protests against the government were also set to be held nationwide.

The main rally for the captives is planned for 7:30 p.m. in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square.

“The hostages can’t cry out, they need us to be there for them, and we won’t stop until they are all home,” the Hostages and Missing Families Forum wrote in a statement ahead of the rally.

Anti-government protesters will gather earlier, at 6:45 p.m., on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, to demand new elections. Scheduled speakers are relatives of hostages, including Yael Engel Lichi, whose nephew Ofir Engel was kidnapped on October 7 and freed under a week-long truce in November, and Yifat Calderon, whose niece Ofer Calderon is still in captivity.

Other demonstrations either demanding a deal or fresh elections were expected in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and other cities and towns across the country.

The events will take place amid high-stakes hostage talks between Israel and Hamas in Doha, held indirectly, after some reported pressure on the terror group by mediators Qatar and Egypt to soften its demands.

The talks are focused on efforts to finalize an agreement for a six-week truce in Gaza — based on a framework reached in Paris last month — and the release of some 40 children, women, elderly and sick hostages in the first phase, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and an increase of humanitarian aid to the Strip. Of 253 hostages abducted by Hamas and other terrorists from Israel on October 7, 2023, some 130 are still held captive in Gaza, though not all are alive.

Hamas has to date conditioned any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to a permanent ceasefire, a demand Israel has rejected outright, vowing to resume its military campaign after any hostage-truce deal has been implemented and to complete its goal of removing the terror group from power.

As Mossad spy agency chief David Barnea and the other officials left for Qatar, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that “there has been no real progress” in negotiations with Hamas.

“The Americans are dressing it up as progress,” said the source. “The pressure to move forward is coming from them.”

Echoing that assessment, Channel 12 quoted an Israeli source saying families of hostages should not get the impression that a breakthrough was likely, while also saying the talks were progressing.

The network also reported, without citing a source, that Hamas was showing greater flexibility in recent days, and that this was directly linked to the military’s ongoing operation at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. The Israel Defense Forces says the raid has resulted in the deaths of over 170 gunmen and the arrest of hundreds of terror operatives, including senior figures in Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Commenting Friday on the hostage talks before leaving Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said negotiators had made progress in recent weeks, “closing gaps” between Israel and Hamas, but acknowledged a lot more work still needed to be done.

“Almost by definition, when you get down to the last items, they tend to be the hardest,” he told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport, “but we’re determined to try to get it done.”

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

Among criticisms of Netanyahu has been his reluctance to confront his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over the increasingly thorny issue of the Haredi draft, especially given the army’s manpower shortage amid the war.

A Channel 12 poll aired earlier this month found that a potential coalition led by National Unity party leader and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz would secure 69 of the Knesset’s 120 seats if elections were held today, compared to a bloc led by Netanyahu, which would win only 46 seats.

When asked who they would like to see as prime minister, more respondents said Gantz over Netanyahu, by a margin of 41% to 29%.

Calls for election have also come from Israel’s closest ally, with US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking Jewish elected leader and a longtime advocate for Israel, making a speech last week criticizing Netanyahu’s conduct in the Israel-Hamas war and urging new elections.

The remarks were denounced by the premier, coalition ministers and US Republicans, but received backing from US President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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