Three weeks after the mass killings and abductions by Hamas gunmen that devastated southern Israel, the families of the hostages still held in Gaza are an increasingly angry and vocal political force.
More than 220 hostages are believed to be imprisoned by Hamas in tunnels and other hiding places in the Gaza Strip. Efforts to release them have made little progress. Only four hostages have been freed so far, and the families of those who remain in captivity are losing patience with the government’s failure to secure their release.
In the early days after the Oct. 7 attack, most of the families were relatively cautious about questioning the Israeli government’s handling of the hostage crisis. They were unified by a single demand: Bring the hostages home.
Since then, however, their frustrations have escalated. When the Israeli military sent tanks into Gaza on Friday night in its biggest ground operation since the war began, the families criticized the government for failing to tell them whether the operation would endanger the lives of the hostages. “This night was the most terrible of all nights,” a coalition of families said on Saturday morning. They said they felt “enormous anger” that nobody from Israeli’s war cabinet “bothered to meet with the families of the hostages” to explain the operation’s impact on hostages.
On Thursday night, hundreds of family members and supporters marched through the streets of Tel Aviv, holding photos of the abducted and missing. After the march, many of them spoke at a news conference, where emotions were raw.
“We were very, very patient, beyond very patient, but our patience has expired,” said Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of 23-year-old Romi Gonen, who was injured by Hamas gunmen at a music festival near Gaza and is believed to have been abducted.
“It has been 20 days,” she told the news conference. “Can you imagine what it’s like for a mother or father to not know where their loved one is for 20 days?”
She said the families expect the Israeli cabinet to talk to them immediately, to provide details of the government’s efforts and to bring back the hostages urgently. “Today, today, today,” the crowd of family members shouted as she spoke.
At the end of the event, she emphasized that the families are prepared to take action rather than trust the government to do something. “We are no longer waiting to be led,” she said. “We are leading the struggle.”
Eyal Eshel, the father of 19-year-old Roni Eshel, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas at a military lookout post near Gaza, told the news conference that the government has a responsibility to free the hostages. “Twenty days and the Israeli government is silent,” he said, as the crowd shouted, “Shame, shame, shame.”
He said he doesn’t want to hear any more rhetoric from the government about plans and methods. “What are you doing all day? Do not turn your back on me.”
Ditza Or, mother of Avinatan Or, who was shown in captivity in a Hamas video after he was abducted from the music festival, called on the Israeli government to stop abandoning the hostages. “I do not call them leaders, because they do not lead us,” she said. “If you do not bring them back, your place is in the garbage bin of history.”
To bolster their cause, the families have formed a volunteer organization, the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, to hold regular events and put pressure on the government. “Stop neglecting the hostages and missing,” the forum said in a statement this week. “Our patience has run out. We are now taking action!”
At other venues, too, family members are speaking out against the government. “We’ve been abandoned by our government twice: on the seventh of October and now because our children are still there,” said Hadas Kalderon, from Nir Oz kibbutz in southern Israel, at an online media briefing.
Her mother and niece were killed by Hamas gunmen on Oct. 7, and two of her children and former husband were abducted. She says the government’s top priority should be to get the hostages freed before the Israeli military launches a ground invasion of Gaza.
“How come they are still there?” she asked. “I’m asking my government, I am asking the President, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ I just have one message: Stop the fighting and release the hostages.”
That message is increasingly influential in Israel, if the latest opinion polls are any indication. A survey of 522 Israelis, published Friday by Israeli newspaper Maariv, found that only 29 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of an immediate large-scale ground invasion of Gaza, compared with 65 per cent who supported this option in a similar poll a week earlier. Nearly half of respondents in the latest poll said it would be better to wait. (The poll had a 4.3-per-cent margin of error.)
In its analysis of the poll, Maariv said the declining support for an immediate ground operation was almost certainly due to the hostage issue, which is increasingly topping the national agenda.
Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the institute’s polling last week found early signs of rising support for the negotiation option. Over a period of several days, there was growing support for the option of immediate negotiations with Hamas on a possible swap of the hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, even while the fighting continued. At the same time, support dropped for the option of delaying negotiations until after the end of fighting.
The voices of the family members have additional weight in Israeli society because so many of the hostages are children, Prof. Hermann said. “In Israel, children are seen as children of the nation.”
With reports from Paul Waldie and Daniel Yaacobi