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 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.”
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 for 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, senior associate fellow 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 a 19-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.”