Families of hostages sharply divided over anti-Netanyahu protests

The Tikva Forum for Families of Hostages slammed calls to join anti-government protests, arguing that politicizing the matter could backfire.

By Amelie Botbol, JNS

Some of the families of Israelis being held by Hamas in Gaza formally joined forces over the weekend with anti-government protesters to push for the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The bottom line is that we are no longer playing mister nice guy,” said Yair Moses, whose parents were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7.

His mother, Margalit, 77, was freed in late November as part of a weeklong ceasefire agreement, while his father Gadi, 79, remains in Gaza.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of demonstrators calling for early elections and the release of the hostages took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities across Israel.

Sixteen people were arrested for blocking roads and violating public order, according to police, who used water cannons to disperse demonstrators.

“It’s been nearly six months that this government is not doing enough to bring our loved ones back, six months that they’re failing,” Yair Moses told JNS.

“The prime minister needs to go now,” he continued. “We need someone else as the head of the government, someone who will put the release of hostages above his political survival.”

Protesters also clashed with police in Jerusalem, where some 200 people broke through barriers near Netanyahu’s official residence, as well as in Caesarea where they blocked roads close to the premier’s private home.

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The demonstrators chanted familiar slogans heard during the anti-judicial reform protests in the months preceding the Oct. 7 attack.

Eli Elbag, father of hostage Liri Elbag, 19, said on Saturday night that it was the last time a separate protest would be held at Tel Aviv’s “Hostage Square,” previously the epicenter of the movement.

“This is the last Shabbat that we’ll be here,” said Elbag. “We won’t meet here anymore, we will be in the streets …, this is the moment where we turn off the lights.”

A giant screen in “Hostage Square” called on the families to join the larger anti-government protests elsewhere in Tel Aviv: “Come with us to Begin [Street] and Dizengoff Street to make our shouts heard. All of them, now!”

Moses explained that the group was not necessarily calling for early elections, making it unclear how he envisioned replacing the government.

“Personally, I don’t think elections are the answer, mostly because it will take a few months and there is no way to tell what the outcome will be,” he said.

“We need something to happen tomorrow, we’re running out of time. We need someone else to step up as the head of the Israeli political system now.”

The Tikva Forum for Families of Hostages sharply criticized the calls to join anti-government protests, arguing that politicizing the matter could backfire.

The group is an alternative to the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the largest organization representing relatives of the captives.

In a statement issued Saturday evening, the group said that “a significant number of abductees’ families are shocked by the political activity.”

In addition, the Tikva Forum demanded that media outlets reporting on the matter note that “families of abductees” is not a uniform group.

“Political organizations making a lot of noise before October 7 and that were opposing the judicial reform and fighting against the government are now using a handful of hostage families for their own needs,” Shimon Or, one of some three dozen families from the Tikvah Forum, told JNS.

Or’s nephew Avinatan Or, 30, was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival along with his girlfriend, 26-year-old Noa Argamani.

“Today, I saw them [the anti-government protesters] hold a picture of Avinatan even though our family does not even remotely agree with their goal of ousting the government,” Or continued. “In fact, we believe that it will prevent the return of the hostages and will strengthen Hamas. Still, they use Avinatan’s posters for their own purposes.

“Political groups use them as tools to make the Israeli people think that this is what we all want, but it’s not,” he said.

Or noted that truce talks are set to resume in Cairo on Sunday, after the negotiations in Doha collapsed last week given Hamas’s decision to stick to demands for a “permanent ceasefire.”

“Hamas is asking to resume control over the Strip, we cannot agree to that,” Or told JNS.

He believes the best route to the safe return of all the hostages is to intensify ground operations in Gaza with an offensive in the city of Rafah, Hamas’s last major stronghold.

“We need to enter Rafah, we need to have a military and civilian [administrative] presence in Gaza. Once we are in control of the Strip, Hamas will not be able to keep the hostages away from us,” he said.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu said that Israel Defense Forces troops would enter Rafah with or without support from the United States, which is opposed to a large-scale ground operation in the city.

The premier was set to meet on Sunday with the families of hostages, including the mother of Na’ama Levy, who revealed that a few weeks ago she had received a sign of life from her daughter, but failed to elaborate.

“Hostages are held in civilian houses, bodies are dispersed all over Gaza. Once we are in control of the Strip, we will be able to get information from the residents on where both the captives and the remains of the victims are,” said Or.

“This waiting period [ahead of the operation] is giving political groups an opportunity to be center stage again and get the attention that they want. They don’t care about the kidnapped, they just want to oust the government,” Or said.