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JERUSALEM – Frustration is turning to anger among the Israeli hostage families. After three agonizing months of waiting for the release of their children, parents and spouses, the hyper-organized community is becoming increasingly desperate and militant.
On Monday, a group of hostage supporters stormed two committee meetings of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, refusing to budge while shouting at lawmakers: “You will not sit here while they die there.”
Relatives of the hostages held by Hamas disrupted the Israeli Parliament's Finance Committee in Jerusalem on January 22. (Video: Portal)
Over the weekend, a hunger striker joined a protest camp outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's private home in the coastal city of Caesarea. Another round-the-clock vigil – the so-called “time is up” encampment – is taking place at an intersection near his official residence in Jerusalem. Protesters poured a red liquid symbolizing blood onto the busy street on Monday evening.
A former Israeli hostage fears for the women she left behind in Gaza
“My fingers are blue, but it's colder in these tunnels,” said Efrat Machikava, blowing on her hands in the drizzly winter chill at the construction site on Tuesday. Standing outside a half-dozen tents were others with posters of those still holding Hamas, including Machikava's 79-year-old uncle, Gadi Moses.
“Now there has to be an agreement,” she said of the prisoners marking their time in the darkness beneath Gaza. “They die.”
At the beginning of their ordeal, many families felt torn between fear for their kidnapped relatives and support for Israel's fight against Hamas. But they say something changed last week as the country went through 100 days of war with no new impetus for the release of their loved ones.
About 132 hostages remain captive, although the Israeli prime minister's office says 28 of them are believed to have died – either from their injuries or at the hands of Hamas. In December, three hostages were accidentally killed by Israeli troops in Gaza as they tried to escape while waving white flags and shouting in Hebrew. Hamas has claimed without evidence that dozens of hostages were killed in Israeli strikes.
In the first days of the war, “we couldn't attack the government because the government was responsible for bringing back our loved ones,” said Shahar Mor Zahiro, one of the protesters who disrupted the Knesset on Monday. His uncle Abraham Munder was 79 years old in Gaza.
Now “society is bursting at the seams,” Zahiro said. “Many families have taken the gloves off. We have nothing left to lose.”
On Wednesday, protesters declared a “Day of Rage” with events across the country demanding the immediate release of the hostages.
For months, the families — supported by a volunteer army of Tel Aviv-based publicists, strategists and graphic designers — held large-scale demonstrations, met with officials and wallpapered the country with hostage posters. Some, like Machikava, have traveled abroad to create global awareness.
The campaign is credited with making the release of the hostages a top war goal, tantamount to the promise to “destroy Hamas” made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.
One hundred and five prisoners, mostly women, children and foreigners, were released in late November under a humanitarian pause negotiated between Israel and Hamas. Since then there has been little visible progress towards a new agreement.
After their release, an invisible chasm separates the Israeli hostage families
As they wait for news, the families of those still in prison have become even more traumatized by the testimonies of released hostages – harrowing accounts of sleeping with corpses and sexual assaults.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” former hostage Aviva Siegel told the Knesset on Tuesday, describing the sexual abuse she witnessed in the tunnels. “The boys also suffer abuse what the girls go through. … They are also puppets on a string.”
Families' anger has increased in urgency as Israel moves into a new phase of the Gaza war that is expected to rely less on widespread bombing and more on targeted attacks that are likely to last months or even years. The transition has opened up new divisions over how long and how hard to keep fighting.
“There is a growing realization that it could take much longer to dismantle Hamas, but the hostages don't have much time left,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
For months, the families' demands have been fundamental: They want the government to release the hostages as quickly as possible. “Bring them home now” is the most common slogan and the name of the largest umbrella group of relatives held hostage.
But more and more families are now joining calls for an immediate ceasefire that would pave the way for a second negotiated deal with Hamas. Some have agreed to a controversial “all for all” deal that would release the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, some convicted of killing civilians, in exchange for the hostages.
Right-wing ministers in the Israeli government rejected the proposal, saying it would return potential fighters to Hamas and other militant groups.
While some Israeli troops are leaving Gaza, a long-term strategy is still unclear
The Israeli military is already beginning to withdraw some troops in Gaza, where the ongoing offensive has killed more than 25,000 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, at least 9,000 militants were killed. Israeli officials say they have largely sidelined Hamas as a military force in the northern part of the enclave and are making progress in the south.
But military leaders are adamant that it was the fight that brought Hamas to the negotiating table for the first release deal, and that the fight will bring them back.
“This pressure, and only it, managed to return many hostages,” said Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi in a speech marking the 100th day of the war. “The Hamas leadership is pinning its hopes on a ceasefire and is convinced that this moment is near.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly and publicly rejected the idea of pausing the military campaign until Israel achieves what he calls a “total victory” – “eliminate Hamas, return all of our hostages and ensure that Gaza is never again a threat to Israel.” represents”.
Privately, however, he has signaled more flexibility, according to a person who works closely with the hostage families. Netanyahu told family representatives at a meeting on Monday that Israel had presented a new hostage deal proposal to negotiators, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the confidential meeting. He said Netanyahu did not describe details of the offer other than that it required Israel to “both give and take.”
The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment. Hostage families said they had learned to be skeptical.
“Our prime minister has been talking a lot in the last 109 days, but he is doing nothing,” said Machikava, standing in front of the new camp. Organizers say Netanyahu will be tailed until the hostages get home.
Itay Stern in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.