Tens of thousands of protesters have arrived in Jerusalem after a five-day march from Tel Aviv to put pressure on the Israeli government for the immediate release of captives held by Hamas in Gaza.
An estimated 20,000 demonstrators, including family and friends of about 240 captives, held a rally in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s office on Saturday. They say the government has been ignoring their pleas to prioritise bringing their loved ones home.
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The marchers walked for hours along the highway connecting the two cities, holding posters of the captives with the slogan, “Bring them home now.”
They want to put pressure on the government “to do everything they can to bring the hostages back”, said Noam Alon, 25, clutching a photograph of his abducted girlfriend, Inbar.
“We are expecting them to meet with us, we are expecting them to tell us how they are going to do it,” he told the Reuters news agency. “We cannot wait any longer, so we are demand [ing] them to do that now, to pay any price to bring the hostages back.”
Hours after the march, Netanyahu promised to meet the families on Monday. “We walk with you, I walk with you. All of Israel walks by your side,” he said at a news conference.
As for the captives, he said “there are many rumours and inaccurate statements”.
“I want to clarify that no deals have been made until now, but I promise you once we have something, I will tell you.”
The captives were taken during the October 7 attack by the Palestinian group on southern Israel, which also left 1,200 people dead, mostly civilians. Since then, Israel launched a huge aerial and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas’s control, killing more than 12,000 people, also mostly civilians.
A spokesperson for the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, said on Saturday that it has lost contact with some of the groups responsible for the safety of the captives in the Gaza Strip.
“The fate of the captives and those holding them is still unknown after we lost communication with them,” he said.
Many relatives and friends of the missing fear they will come to harm in Israeli attacks on Gaza designed to destroy Hamas. The government says the offensive improves the chances of recovering captives by putting pressure on Hamas.
Among those who marched to Jerusalem was centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid, who has been mostly supportive of the war but has demanded Netanyahu’s resignation.
Miki Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet and party, was heckled on Friday when he visited the marchers at a rest stop.
Government ‘isn’t talking’
Hamas on Monday released a video of the first hostage confirmed to have died in captivity and earlier said others have been killed.
That has stoked the anxiety of campaigners and relatives calling on the Israeli government to speed up any prisoner swap, and frustration with Netanyahu’s insistence that discretion is required around the Qatari- and Egyptian-mediated negotiations.
“It’s impossible that there are 240 kidnapped people and the government – our government – isn’t talking to [the relatives], isn’t telling them what’s going on, what’s on the table, what’s on offer, what are the reasons for and against. Nothing,” campaigner Stevie Kerem told Reuters.
Oliver McTernan, who has worked on hostage negotiations for 20 years, said the families were right to be concerned. The only way to achieve the return of the captives, he said, is a ceasefire of enough duration to move them safely across the battlefield. Israel has said such a move would simply allow Hamas to rearm.
“I think every day that goes on there is a risk – risk with bombings, risk with incursions and whatever – of the civilians, Israeli civilians, dying in Gaza,” McTernan told The Associated Press news agency, adding that that “should be a priority of any government: to ensure their safety and their return to their families”.