The headquarters of the Israeli Defense Ministry towered over Tel Aviv as a symbol of power, but for the hostage families now gathered below, the building became a focal point of anguish.
Relatives filled the square in front of the 17-story Matcal Tower on Saturday to demand that a state founded to protect Jews honor that agreement by doing everything possible to save Gaza’s captives.
The escalation of the Israeli assault on the enclave has fueled fears that their loved ones will be targeted by tank shells and aerial bombs, or reprisals by Hamas captors, and raised distressing questions: had the government given up all hope of negotiating releases? What was the army’s strategy to free the hostages? Was there a strategy?
“Is there a plan?” We do not know it. This is what we want to find out,” said Haim Rubinstein, spokesman for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, as families and supporters met and hugged each other under the blazing sun.
“We also want to know the significance of what happened last night,” Rubinstein said, referring to the ground incursion into Gaza by Israeli troops and the bombing of 150 underground Hamas targets – including tunnels. which could house some of the 229 hostages Israel estimates are in Gaza.
After three weeks of complaints that the government failed to inform relatives of the crisis, or even meet with them, protesters pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to meet with them Saturday evening.
It is unclear what assurances he might offer, as there appears to be no plan to negotiate prisoner exchanges or suspend the offensive, which Hamas says is a condition of any release.
“We attacked above ground and underground, we attacked terrorists of all ranks, everywhere,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement. “The instructions for the forces are clear: the operation will continue until further notice.”
For families close to the Defense Ministry who held photos of their loved ones or tied yellow ribbon around benches and trees, it was an ominous statement. Last week, Hamas said around 50 hostages had died in the bombing.
“Every day the hostages are not released, they are in danger,” said Zeev Scherman, whose 19-year-old nephew Ron Scherman was kidnapped in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. The government abandoned Israelis living near Gaza that day and now risks abandoning captured survivors, Scherman said.
“Why this offensive? No hurry. Hamas wasn’t going anywhere.” He favored exchanging hostages for thousands of Palestinians, including Hamas militants, in Israeli prisons. “All prisoners for all hostages.”
Shelly, 62, who held a sign saying “life matters,” echoed the sentiment. “The government owes us something for failing to protect us. We must focus on the hostages – we must not eat or sleep until we bring them home. The hostages first. There is always time for war.
Shirley, 56, implored Netanyahu’s administration to prioritize the captives. “It’s a second holocaust. Who knows what happens to our babies? The more intense the bombings on Gaza, the more worried the relatives are, she said. “It’s been three weeks. We can’t take it anymore. »
For Yarid Shabibi, the complexities of the conflict dissolved into a burning desire for the return of his 26-year-old cousin, Noa Argamani, whose kidnapping on a motorcycle was filmed and widely shared online. “We just want her to be here, that’s all.”
The families and their supporters expressed a wide range of attitudes toward the Palestinians. “We want the Palestinians to have a state. We are afraid for the people of Gaza, we do not want them to suffer,” said Dahlia, 62.
Ayelet Samerano, whose son Jonathan was kidnapped, trembled as she spoke. “My son, my grandson. These animals took him away.
“They killed children in front of their parents and killed parents in front of their children. » Sleep is elusive, Samerano said. “And when I wake up, I go back to the nightmare.”
She accused the government of leaving her loved ones in an information vacuum, but expressed confidence in the decision to attack Gaza. “I’m not worried about my army. My army knows exactly what to do.
The Forum of Hostages and Missing Families is a generic name for groups of relatives who organize themselves via WhatsApp.
On Saturday morning, a strongly worded statement criticized Netanyahu and his cabinet for leaving families in the dark as they stepped up their operations in Gaza. “Tonight was the worst night of all,” it reads. “Families are worried about the fate of their loved ones and are waiting for explanations. Each minute that passes seems like an eternity. »
The forum did not call for a ceasefire or an exchange of prisoners. “We are telling the military and the government to bring back our people,” said Rubinstein, the spokesman. “We don’t tell them how to do it. We just say, “tell us what the plan is.” »