Nov 15, 2023

Families of Israelis taken hostage in Gaza protest outside the Ministry of Defense headquarters, Tel Aviv, November 3rd, 2023.

Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Hostages’ Families Fight to Be Heard

The families of those held in Gaza have faced violence and neglect in their quest to retrieve their loved ones.

On Tuesday, November 14th, families of Israeli hostages who have been held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7th attacks announced that they would march for five days from their provisional protest tent in Tel Aviv to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem to demand the return of their relatives. Shelly Shem Tov, whose son Omer is being held hostage, addressed the crowd before the march began. “Bibi, Gantz, and Gallant,” she began, naming the three members of Israel’s war cabinet, “you failed! You failed!” “We know that you can decide tonight [to secure the release of the hostages],” she screamed. “We will burn the state down until they come home—all of them.” Through sobs, Shem Tov spoke of the Marciano family, who had learned the night before via a video released by Hamas that their daughter Noa, who had been held in Gaza since October 7th, had been killed, reportedly by an Israeli airstrike. “We are losing people!” she cried.

Since October 7th, the Israeli government has appeared singly focused, as Netanyahu has put it, on its “one goal—to destroy Hamas.” Israel’s aerial bombardments and ground incursions have so far killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including over 4,600 children, and displaced more than 1.5 million. The same assaults also pose a threat to the hostages. Hamas claims that 60 captives have already been killed in Israeli airstrikes, though that number has not been verified. As Lee Siegel, whose brother and sister-in-law Keith and Aviva are being held hostage, put it to me, “Every day that goes by and every further military action from both sides can only put the hostages more at risk.” Amid these concerns, Israeli government officials have issued a string of strikingly callous statements. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview that the hostages are “not going to stop us, prevent us from doing what we need to do in order to secure the future of Israel.” Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, argued in a cabinet meeting, “We have to be cruel now and not think too much about the hostages.” When an interviewer responded to Minister of Heritage Amichai Eliyahu’s suggestion that Israel should drop an atomic bomb on Gaza by asking about the fate of the hostages in such a scenario, Eliyahu replied, “I hope and pray for their return, but there are costs in war.”

At present, some 240 hostages are believed to be captive in the Gaza Strip—not including four people who have been released, and a fifth who was rescued by Israeli forces. The number may be even higher, as dozens of people remain missing following the October 7th attacks. Among the hostages are 33 children (the youngest of whom was nine months old at the time he was kidnapped), several octogenarians, multiple members of the Palestinian Bedouin community, and dozens of foreign workers, primarily Thai citizens who worked as agricultural laborers in the area near the Gaza border.

The efforts of these captives’ families to secure their loved ones’ return have reached a fever pitch in recent days, as they seek to pressure the Israeli government to accept a seemingly imminent prisoner exchange deal. The deal would reportedly involve the release of some 50 women and children currently held in Gaza in return for a several-day ceasefire and the freedom of a number of Palestinian women and children incarcerated by Israel; many hostages, however, would remain in Gaza even if negotiators succeed. Frustrations are running high among hostages’ families as it has become clear that the Israeli government has rejected similar offers that would have prioritized the hostages’ release over the continued attack on Gaza. During a Knesset Health Committee discussion on “emotional health and resilience,” Gil Dikman, whose cousins are hostages, lambasted Likud Member of Knesset Galit Distel Atbaryan for her calls to “erase Gaza from the face of the earth.” Dikman responded, “To hear you speak in such slogans . . . ‘to erase, to annihilate, to flatten [Gaza].’ Who are you flattening? Human beings who you’ve abandoned is who you’re flattening.”

“To hear you speak in such slogans, ‘to erase, to annihilate, to flatten [Gaza].’ Who are you flattening? Human beings who you’ve abandoned is who you’re flattening.”

As such confrontations show, the families of the hostages have inevitably proven inconvenient in the eyes of an Israeli government demanding unconditional support for war. “There is inbuilt tension, which is only intensifying, between the two key objectives of the war in the Gaza Strip. Israel wishes to strip Hamas of its organizational and military capabilities, but at the same time wants to create the conditions for releasing the civilians and soldiers held captive by Hamas,” the Israeli journalist Amos Harel said in Haaretz. Though a few of the families of hostages have vocally aligned themselves with the government’s no-holds-barred approach, the Headquarters of the Families of Hostages and Missing Persons, a coalition of some of the families who have relatives being held hostage, has called for a prisoner exchange that would trade all of the approximately 7,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel, about a third of whom are members of Hamas, for all hostages currently being held in Gaza—a deal captured by the protest slogan “Everyone for everyone.” Experts say this would almost certainly require at least a temporary ceasefire: “Logistically speaking it’s impossible [to make a hostage exchange under bombardment], because there’s no way that you can gather hostages in one place while the entirety of the area that you’re in is being pounded from above,” H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN.

In some cases, this tension has provoked violence against those protesting for the release of the hostages. On October 16th, a right-wing passerby attacked Eli Albag, the father of an 18-year-old hostage, Liri, while he was at the hostage protest tent in Tel Aviv, calling him a “traitor” and saying, “I hope your daughter dies.” On October 29th, Chen Avigdori, whose wife, Sharon, and daughter Noam are being held hostage, reported that people came to a small daily vigil for the hostages and called the attendees “Nazis” and “Hamas.” A small vigil for the hostages in central Jerusalem on October 12th was violently dispersed by police, who arrested several of the participants. “[The police] came at us with tons and tons of violence—using their hands, pushing, punching,” said one attendee, Felipe, who asked that his last name be withheld for safety reasons. He said the police were shouting “go to Gaza!” as they attacked, and that he was thrown to the ground and repeatedly struck in the head and the stomach. “Certain segments of the population are now very quick to tag any voice that does not support—without reservations—the destruction of Gaza as traitors and supporters of the enemy,” the journalist and commentator Orly Noy told me in an interview.

Despite attacks on protesters, and hostility from large segments of the Israeli public, support for a deal is gaining ground. On November 4th, more than 500 people came together in the streets of Jerusalem—not for a silent vigil, but for a protest, with megaphones, chants, and drums. A protest in Tel Aviv on the same evening drew thousands. But though the demonstrations have grown, they remain strikingly minoritarian—a fraction of the size of the protests against Israel’s attempted judiciary coup, which regularly brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets. “If someone were to write a dystopian novel about how Hamas invaded Israel and kidnapped [hundreds of] Israelis to Gaza . . . and most of the time only a few dozen people took part [in the protests to release them], the editor would return that part for revisions, because it doesn’t sound believable,” wrote Haaretz columnist Dani Bar On. “But this is the reality most of the time at this protest.”

As the Israeli government mulls a deal that could see the release of a significant number of civilian hostages, many of the families are angry, yet hopeful. “We know that it’s even possible to make a decision today, tonight. It could happen today,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen, whose daughter Romi is being held hostage. Still, the saga has revealed a substantial sea change in a country that, as the journalist Uri Misgav put it in Haaretz, had previously “treated every single hostage as if they contained the whole world.” In 2011, Israel famously agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners—including 300 serving life sentences for violent attacks—in exchange for a single captive soldier, Gilad Shalit. By the time the deal went through, it had overwhelming public and governmental support. Just over a decade later, some Israelis say the government‘s prioritization of military dominance is leading to the erosion of every competing value—even the value of the lives of Israel’s own citizens. “Bereaved families used to have the status of holy people in Israel,” said Noy, who reported seeing people yell “traitor” and spit at hostage families during a protest. “It’s another incredible crossing of a line, another ethos dissolved—the total disintegration of everything [Israelis] thought the state stood for.”

Noy reported seeing people yell “traitor” and spit at hostage families during a protest. “It’s another incredible crossing of a line, another ethos dissolved—the total disintegration of everything [Israelis] thought the state stood for.”

Although the hostages’ families represent one of the only formidable challenges to the war in Israeli society, they are far from politically unified. Some have criticized the Israeli government for allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, while others have praised the decision. Some called for a ground invasion, while others denounced it. Some oppose a ceasefire before the hostages are released, while others support one. A few family members of hostages have even grounded their calls for a ceasefire in a larger opposition to war and occupation. “I call out to the government that will rise after the nightmare is over and I say: Do not destroy the Gaza Strip,” wrote Neta Heiman Mina, whose 84-year-old mother, Ditza, is being held hostage. “When the moment for negotiations on a cease-fire arrives, take advantage of that moment to also bring about an agreement between the two sides—not an ‘arrangement,’ but a true peace agreement.” If the hostages’ families disrupt the pro-war near-consensus in Israeli society, however, they have for the most part stopped short of embracing an anti-war argument. “Victims’ families voiced concerns that political messaging would make a divisive far-right government even less likely to return their loved ones,” Roy Cohen reported in +972 Magazine.

Despite their other disagreements, many of the families have publicly supported exchanging Palestinian prisoners for the captives in Gaza. Before the war, Israel held close to 5,200 Palestinian prisoners. In the past month, the number is believed to have risen to roughly 7,000; in addition to the approximately 118 captured Hamas militants being held for atrocities committed on October 7th, Israel has arrested roughly 2,000 Palestinians in the West Bank since the onset of the war. Gershon Baskin, a political analyst who was central to the negotiations that brought about the release of Gilad Shalit, has argued for freeing these prisoners—including the 559 convicted of killing Israelis—in the “everyone for everyone” deal proposed by the hostage families. “If we want to get all the hostages home, there is no other option,” he told me.

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has expressed openness to this arrangement. But so far, Netanyahu has rejected such deals outright. “Each time a deal would go back to [Netanyahu] it would come back with tougher demands,” one source familiar with the negotiations told The Guardian. Noy said that Netanyahu has been significantly weakened by the intelligence failures of the October 7th attack and “cannot politically allow the photos of Palestinian prisoners being released. His base won’t accept it, even if it means the lives of all of the hostages.” Israelis are quick to point out that Sinwar himself, a key architect of the October 7th attacks, was released in the Shalit deal. In this context, the government has appeared ambivalent about whether to engage in negotiations at all; as Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi said at an October 14th press conference, “We have no way to conduct negotiations with an enemy whom we want to wipe off the face of the earth.”

Even as it resists pressure to negotiate, the government has argued that its commitment to war is not incompatible with the effort to recover the hostages. “If there is no military pressure on Hamas, nothing will progress,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the families of hostages on October 29th. Netanyahu has also said that military action in Gaza “actually creates the possibility of getting our hostages out.” The rescue of Ori Megidish, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier who was recovered by Israeli military forces on October 29th, was taken by Netanyahu’s supporters as proof that a ground invasion is the path to freeing the hostages: Videos circulated online of celebrations outside Megidish’s home, with people joyfully shouting “Bibi, King of Israel.” But experts doubt that a larger rescue is possible through force. As Baskin has routinely argued, even after Megidish’s rescue, “The only way to bring the hostages home alive is through a negotiated agreement with Hamas.”

Some Israelis suspect that the government would have responded differently if the majority of the hostages had been among its voters rather than on the political left. While Netanyahu’s Likud party was the leading party nationally in Israel’s last elections, it received between 3% and 8% of the total vote in Be’eri, Nir Oz, Kfar Azza, Nahal Oz, and Holit, several of the kibbutzim that suffered the worst attacks on October 7th. Some of the hostages are well-known left-wing activists, including Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz (the former of whom was released on October 23rd), who regularly drove Gazans to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment. Many more hold similar views: The family of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, for example, posted photos of his bedroom in Jerusalem as he left it before heading to the dance party where he was later kidnapped—decorated with a poster bearing the words “Jerusalem is everyone’s” in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, along with Antifa and pro-refugee stickers. As Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a research and policy think tank, told me: “Netanyahu’s seeming apathy towards the families of the hostages makes you wonder whether they would be more of a priority if they were among his base.” In a crass articulation of this point, which he now denies making, right-wing Member of Knesset Simcha Rotman said in late October that the blood of two religious settlers killed in February in the West Bank “is redder than that of those killed on October 7th.”

“Netanyahu’s seeming apathy towards the families of the hostages makes you wonder whether they would be more of a priority if they were among his base.”

The partisan tenor of the hostage issue has been on display, with members of opposition parties acting far faster than the governing coalition to call for the hostages’ release. In a representative example, Merav Michaeli, the head of the center-left Labor Party, first posted about the hostages on October 8th, calling out members of the government for not having met with hostage families, while Itamar Ben-Gvir, the head of the far-right Jewish Power party, which is in the governing coalition, did not post about the hostages until October 30th, to celebrate the rescue of Megidish.

Even more tellingly, in the month since the attacks, Netanyahu has held only two meetings with families of hostages, and in each case, he sat down with just five or six families, none of whom were from the kibbutzim near the Gaza border. (US President Joe Biden is believed to have spent more time talking to the families of hostages than Netanyahu has, and the families widely credit him with the release of the first two hostages, US citizens Judith and Natalie Raanan.) Multiple family members reported asking to participate in meetings with Netanyahu and being denied. “It’s clear that there’s a closed clique here that decides who meets with the prime minister and who doesn’t. And usually it’s the same parents and the same names,” one father of two children being held hostage, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to harm efforts to bring back his children, told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom. He speculated that he had been kept out because the government recognized his unwillingness to perform for the press in a spectacle “intended to serve Netanyahu.” “Maybe they know that I’ll turn over tables there,” he said.

Even the organization that has brought the families together, the Headquarters of the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing Persons (known simply as “the Headquarters”), has come in for criticism from some of the families themselves, who point out that its founders included Likudniks close to Netanyahu. Journalist Nirit Anderman wrote in Haaretz that “something at the Headquarters isn’t working right,” accusing the organization of “acting with an uncertain calm” when it should be “rais[ing] a voice of rage that shakes this land.” On October 29th, two senior officials publicly resigned from their roles at the Headquarters, criticizing the organization for ensuring that only right-wing families could gain access to the prime minister. One of those who resigned, David Meidan—a former Mossad official who served as Netanyahu’s representative in the Shalit deal—said in interviews that by creating photo ops for the prime minister to project his concern for the families, while protecting him from pressure from those who don’t share his politics, the Headquarters “is providing a comfortable bulletproof vest for him.”

Evidence has emerged that Netanyahu’s few meetings with families have been carefully choreographed for political purposes. During the first meeting, on October 15th, several previously unannounced people appeared, identifying themselves as family members of hostages, even though they were not part of the group at the Headquarters. One man, who told the room that his daughter was a hostage, urged Netanyahu to “act coolly and decisively . . . I love my daughter no less than the rest of the people in this room love their own family members. But in the end we have to think of the people of Israel and the future of our existence.” Jacky Levy and Noam Dan, who have multiple family members being held hostage and were at the meeting, said in an interview that they felt “there was inappropriate political opportunism here,” and called the unannounced parties’ invitation an intentional move to “sow dispute” among the families. (Although Netanyahu’s office has claimed that it had nothing to do with the group’s surprise appearance, Haaretz found that their arrival was indeed planned in advance.)

Three of the surprise meeting attendees later identified themselves as Tzvika Mor, Eliyahu Libman, and Ditza Or, settlers from Kiryat Arba and Shiloh in the occupied West Bank, all of whom have sons who were taken hostage. The three have since gone on a media blitz arguing that there should be no hostage deal, even if it means sacrificing their sons’ lives. “It’s our children, and we are saying to the Jewish people that taking care of our children shouldn’t come at the expense of the war,” Mor said in an interview on the Haredi radio station Kol Barama on October 16th. Libman said he doesn’t sleep at night for fear of a hostage deal. “These terrorists will murder Jews. Is there no conscience? No morality?” he asked in a radio interview with Kan, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, on October 29th. Or has hit a similar note in interviews. “We must beat terror. Not talk with it or compromise with it or let it pause between rounds to get armed anew,” she told the Religious Zionist news network Arutz Sheva on October 16th. The Libman and Mor families both signed onto a letter, along with 11 families whose children were killed in the October 7th fighting, urging “war until victory.”

The religious settler families notwithstanding, most of the hostages’ relatives have made it clear that they blame Netanyahu for their loved ones’ plight. Many have criticized the prime minister for appointing a hostage envoy broadly considered unfit for the position: Gal Hirsch, a former military commander who was forced to resign over censure of his conduct during the Second Lebanon War. A Haaretz editorial slammed the choice as “showing that Netanyahu has no serious intention of working to free the hostages,” and reports suggest that Hirsch has actively gotten in the way of his supposed mission, for example by failing to respond to communication from Qatar’s envoy to Gaza about the possibility of releasing hostages. “I don’t think they appointed the right people,” Heiman Mina told me. “There are people who know how to do this and have dealt with these kinds of deals. This is a political appointment and not a professional one. I’m really angry. There’s no one to trust here.”

“There’s very, very low confidence in the ability and the reasonableness of Netanyahu making decisions today. He’s not trusted, even by people in his own party.”

More broadly, many Israelis feel, as Haaretz journalist Uri Misgav has put it, that the hostages “are a living, emotional remnant of Netanyahu and his government’s terrible abandonment and negligence”—specifically, of the intelligence failure that made the October 7th attacks possible and the military failure that allowed the attacks to last the long hours that they did. Further, military forces that are usually stationed in the area of the Gaza periphery had been moved to the West Bank to protect settlers there. Anger toward the government has been widespread in Israel, with Netanyahu’s already-low ratings plummeting since the Hamas attack. According to a recent poll by Channel 13 News, 76% of Israelis think Netanyahu needs to resign, a call that’s been echoed by important former military and political officials. The phrase “Bibi is a murderer” has been trending on X (formerly known as Twitter) in Israel, and videos circulating in Israeli media show Israeli ministers getting heckled in recent weeks at hospitals, schools, and hotels where survivors are being housed, and even at the funerals of those killed on October 7th. According to Baskin, in contrast to during the Shalit negotiation, “there’s very, very low confidence in the ability and the reasonableness of Netanyahu making decisions today. He’s not trusted, even by people in his own party.”

Perhaps the most damning denunciation has come in the form of recent videos of the hostages released by Hamas. In a video made public on October 30th, Danielle Aloni from Kibbutz Nir Oz castigates Netanyahu for the October 7th attacks: “We are carrying your political, security, and military failure . . . because there was no army there. No one came. No one protected us,” she yells. She calls repeatedly for a ceasefire and prisoner exchange, demanding, “Free us now. Free their citizens, free their prisoners . . . Free us all.” In the most recent video, released November 9th, Hannah Katzir, also from Kibbutz Nir Oz, similarly blames Netanyahu and calls for a negotiated deal for the release of the hostages, while 13-year-old Yagil Yaakov thanks protesters in Tel Aviv for pressuring the government for his release. “I want to tell Netanyahu that it’s just unbelievable. All these explosions are just crazy. You are killing children, and you are even killing prisoners,” he says. “Netanyahu, I want to tell you that if something happens to me, it’s on your conscience.” Tellingly, the Israeli government and news outlets have decided not to air the videos, saying they do not want to promote propaganda. Noy argues that this reflects an attempt by the government to control the discourse, noting, “Any sign of life from the hostages could bring the public to put pressure on the government to release them while there’s still a possibility they’re alive.”

Israel has dismissed the hostage videos as “cruel psychological propaganda” and “psychological terrorism,” but even as they are filmed under coercive circumstances, their message is identical to the one most of the hostages’ families have put forward: unequivocally assigning the blame for the October 7th attacks to Netanyahu and calling for him to prioritize the hostages’ safe return. “We’ve been abandoned by our government twice,” Hadas Kalderon, whose two children, Sahar and Erez, are being held hostage, told the AP. “On October 7th, and now, because our children are still there.” Avichai Brodetz, whose wife, Hagar, and three children, Ofri, Yuval, and Uriah, are being held hostage, yelled at Likud Member of Knesset Boaz Bismuth on television, “Do you know why my family was kidnapped? Not because of Hamas. Because there was no army there to protect me . . . The problem is you, not Hamas.”

“We’ve been abandoned by our government twice. On October 7th, and now, because our children are still there.”

Despite the government’s intransigence, more than a month into the war, support for a hostage deal appears to be growing in Israeli society. “Three weeks ago, the hostages were a non-issue. The public was ready to sacrifice anything and everyone in order to make Hamas pay for what they did,” Baskin told me on October 30th. “But there’s been an amazing shift in a very short period of time, because the public understands the clock is running out.” This is evident in recent polling: According to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), 43% of the Israeli public supports a prisoner exchange, while 39% oppose it (and 18% “do not know”); another IDI survey, which collected responses three times between October 15th and November 6th, shows that support for negotiations with Hamas has grown steadily in recent weeks. Meanwhile, a recent poll by Maariv showed that 62% of the Israeli public supports a humanitarian ceasefire if tied to a hostage deal (16% in exchange for the release of some hostages, 39% in exchange for the release of all hostages, 4% in exchange for information about the hostages, and 3% regardless of the release of hostages). Baskin emphasized that it took five years for the Shalit deal, which was first proposed in 2006, to gain sufficient public and political support—but warned that those currently held in captivity do not have the luxury of time.

As days slip by, the hostages have been invoked in endless forms of public art. Their faces and names are plastered on posters on walls and lampposts. An art installation of close to 240 empty beds set up next to the Jerusalem City Hall has since been traveling across the country. A Shabbat dinner table with hundreds of empty chairs has been set up outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and empty baby strollers line the streets. Blindfolded teddy bears are also meant to represent the hostages, as are red balloons and yellow ribbons. One activist group, simply called Hostage Exchange Now, that came together in the days after October 7th, wrote that “the country is full of art installations and events that have the style of Memorial Day events”—when the country honors those killed in war—“which distract from the critical and immediate demand for action towards the return of hostages and an exchange . . . The hostages don’t need balloons or art displays. This is how we normalize what now needs to be prevented, to accustom us to disaster.” They called instead for “clear statements: calls and demands from the Israeli government to do a prisoner exchange deal . . . Now, not tomorrow.”

Despite comments to ABC News by an unnamed Israeli official on November 14th that there had been progress in prisoner exchange negotiations between Israel and Hamas, on Wednesday evening, November 15th, sources announced that the negotiations had reached an impasse over various issues, including the length of the ceasefire and Israel’s use of surveillance drones through its duration. “There is optimism that both sides want to reach a deal, but we’ve been in this position twice in the last few weeks, and the deal blew up,” a source told Haaretz.

Whether or not the current deal succeeds, a large number of hostages will remain captive in Gaza. And that means that a gulf may continue to widen between an Israeli government committed to continued war and a public that, according to Crisis Group’s Zonszein, is increasingly indignant about the way the captives have been consigned to be collateral damage. While there remains consensus support for Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas militarily, Zonszein said, much of the Israeli public feels that the imperative to bring home the hostages “is just as or even more important . . . There’s a real split between the government’s harsh military political strategy, which is not prioritizing the hostages, and the public, which is.”

So far, however, that feeling has not translated into widespread opposition to the government’s relentless bombardment, leaving the hostages’ families fighting a lonely fight. At a protest in Jerusalem on November 4th, Noam Dan, who has multiple relatives among the hostages, accused Netanyahu and the war cabinet of casting the hostages and their families as a “burden on military action.” She insisted that it was the government, not the families, that should feel ashamed, asking: “What is wrong with your world that you don’t understand the weight of this hour?”

A previous version of this piece misstated the age of Liri Albag; she is 18, not 19. The piece also misstated the date of Yocheved Lifshitz’s release from captivity; she was released on October 23rd, not October 24th. Lastly, the piece misstated the date of Member of Knesset Simcha Rotmans remarks, which occurred in late October, not early November.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.