Thousands press Israeli government to do more to free hostages
Thousands of family members and supporters of the 240 hostages held by Hamas streamed into occupied Jerusalem on Saturday, castigating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his handling of the war on Gaza and pleading with the government to do more to bring their loved ones home.
The march capped a five-day trek from Tel Aviv and represented the largest protest on behalf of the hostages since they were taken by Hamas on October 7, following the group's attack in southern Israel.
About 1,200 people were killed in Israel on the day of the surprise Hamas assault, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians in the past six weeks as Israeli forces conduct a punishing air and ground offensive in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Some of the hostage families have said they fear that the military offensive endangers their loved ones.
On Saturday, the marchers carried Israeli flags and photos of the hostages as they finished the 70-kilometer walk to Jerusalem and slowly converged on Netanyahu’s office.
Netanyahu has not yet agreed to meet with them, provoking fury among the demonstrators.
Other members of Israel's War Cabinet such as former opposition leader Benny Gantz and former army chief Gadi Eisenkot were set to sit down Saturday evening with representatives of the hostage families.
“We are here today with many families walking up to Jerusalem to keep the awareness of the hostage issue as a top priority for the government of Israel,” said Ruby Chen, whose 19-year old son is a hostage.
Some also criticized the War Cabinet for what they described as a lack of transparency about any rescue plans.
On Thursday, UN human rights chief Volker Turk said that widespread outbreaks of disease and hunger seemed "inevitable" in Gaza after weeks of Israeli assault on the densely populated Palestinian enclave 👇 pic.twitter.com/N0mEsWLyki— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 17, 2023
"We are gathered here from all across the nation to support the families of the kidnapped and to send a direct message to the government,” marcher Hvihy Hanina said.
“These hostages must be set free. They belong with us. They belong with their families.”
The protest came amid widespread Israeli media speculation that the War Cabinet is considering a Qatari-brokered deal to win the release of the women and children among the hostages.
In exchange, Israel would agree to a cease-fire of several days and release several dozen of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it is holding.
Of the more than 240 hostages kidnapped to Gaza, five have been released.
Four of them were conducted through international diplomacy involving Qatar, and one who was rescued by Israeli forces.
US President Joe Biden's main adviser on the Middle East said on Saturday there would be a "significant pause" in the Israel-Gaza conflict if hostages held by Hamas are freed.
"The surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause... will come when hostages are released," Brett McGurk told a security conference in Bahrain.
Israel has also refused to heed calls for a ceasefire before all the hostages are released.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who also attended the Bahrain conference, said it was "unacceptable" to link humanitarian pauses to a hostages release.