‘You’re abandoning them in Gaza’: Protesters to rally for hostages, demand elections

Relatives of many held in Gaza to ‘scream through powerful loudspeakers’; anti-government demonstrations to be held nationwide after police refuse permit for Kaplan Street

People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas terrorists into the Gaza Strip on October 7, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas terrorists into the Gaza Strip on October 7, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Two sets of protests were scheduled to get underway Saturday evening throughout the country — the first calling for an immediate deal to release hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the second demanding elections.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum urged the public to join them at the main weekly rally at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square at 7:30 p.m. under the slogan: “You’re abandoning them in Gaza,” with the relatives of dozens of those held in Gaza expected to “scream through powerful loudspeakers their desperate plea to the prime minister and security cabinet members.”

In addition, protesters will also gather outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

The rallies come as Qatari and Egyptian-mediated efforts to secure the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas and a truce in the war have stalled. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to send a delegation to Cairo on Thursday for discussions on a potential deal with Hamas until the terror group softened its demands, which the premier has called “delusional.”

The prime minister reportedly did not consult with the war cabinet on the matter, a decision highlighted by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in its announcement of the rally.

The organization said the demonstration would be held against the background of the decision not to send an Israeli delegation to Cairo, the exclusion of some war cabinet members from that decision and the “ignoring of the security forces’ recommendations.”

People protest outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv calling for the hostages to be released, February 15, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The forum also said that the prime minister and some cabinet members had refused requests by hostages’ family members for a meeting for over a week.

At around the same time on Saturday evening, anti-government protesters were set to gather at some 50 locations across the country after Israel Police said they could not hold a large central rally at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, ostensibly due to its proximity to the demonstration for the hostages.

In a post on X, protest leader Ami Dror wrote that the plan had been to relocate the anti-government protest from Tel Aviv’s Habima to the larger space on Kaplan Street, the site of last year’s anti-judicial overhaul protests.

“There was a police permit, there was a permit from the municipality, but the government of the massacre applied pressure, and the police refused to approve the demonstration in Kaplan!” Dror wrote.

However, demonstrators vowed that they would gather in any case at 22 Kaplan Street, along with rallies nationwide.

On Thursday evening, demonstrators gathered at the homes of ministers and lawmakers for protests calling for the end of the current government, led by groups that spearheaded protests against the hardline coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul.

Protesters rally outside the home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin in Modi’in on February 15, 2024. (Hani Baruchin via the pro-democracy protest movement)

Calls for an election have grown amid intense criticism of the government for the failures that enabled the October 7 attacks, as well as dissatisfaction with its handling of the war, with repeated polls showing Netanyahu losing his majority in the Knesset if a vote was to be held today.

Saturday evening is expected to be the largest anti-government protest since the start of the war, sparked by the Hamas onslaught.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 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 11 hostages have also 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 has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been 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.

Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since October 7, rally outside the Kirya military base which houses the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on February 15, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Mediators in Egypt are said to be racing to secure a ceasefire and hostage deal before Israel proceeds with a planned wide-scale ground operation in Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

On Thursday, Netanyahu met in Tel Aviv with CIA director William Burns, along with Mossad head David Barnea, Shin Bet director Ronen Bar, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Military Secretary Avi Gil to discuss ongoing talks for the release of the hostages.

The Palestinian terror group’s demands include moves toward a permanent ceasefire, a withdrawal of troops from Gaza, reconstruction of the enclave and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, among them numerous convicted killers and terror masterminds, in exchange for the remaining hostages taken on October 7. Israel has said such demands are non-starters.

Illustrative: Houses destroyed during Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught in Kibbutz Be’eri, December 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Quoting US and Israeli officials, the Axios news site reported late Tuesday that the key sticking point in the negotiations is the release of Palestinian prisoners, with US President Joe Biden telling Netanyahu on Sunday that while Hamas’s demands went too far, Israel could demonstrate more flexibility, and will likely have to free more Palestinians per hostage than a previous deal in November that saw 105 civilians released by the terror group.

Israel has made destroying Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of the war, which began when thousands of Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 others captive, including women and children. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.

The war has wrought massive destruction in the Gaza Strip, with more than 28,000 people killed, according to Gaza-based Hamas health officials. That figure cannot be independently verified and includes some 10,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle and as a consequence of the terror groups’ own rocket misfires. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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