Desperate families of Gaza hostages push for a cease-fire

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In recent days, the families of Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza have grown increasingly desperate.

They’ve stormed highways, blocked convoys of aid heading into Gaza and erected a noisy protest camp in front of the Jerusalem home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This week, dozens of them burst into a session of parliament, screaming at lawmakers: “You will not sit here while our children die.”

More than three months into Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas, many of the families have grown disillusioned with the war and convinced that only a cease-fire — not further military operations — will free their loved ones.

Their plea that Israel do whatever is necessary to secure the release of the hostages has put them at odds with Netanyahu, who has vowed that the siege on Gaza will continue “until the end, until total victory.”

This week Netanyahu said he rejected a Hamas cease-fire proposal because it called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza.

Israelis are increasingly divided on the best path forward in the war, which began Oct. 7 when Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel in the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. About 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 people were kidnapped.

Israel retaliated with massive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and a ground invasion that local health officials say have killed more than 26,000 Palestinians. The war has weakened but not eliminated Hamas.

Israeli soldiers have rescued just one hostage. Another died in a failed rescue operation, and three were killed after soldiers mistook them for militants. The vast majority of the 110 who have returned home were released during a November cease-fire and prisoner exchange brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

 Commuters on a bus watch as their vehicle is held up in traffic congestion.

Bus commuters observe the demonstration in the street outside in Jerusalem.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Families of the 105 hostages believed to be alive in Gaza say another deal is urgently needed.

“Every day is critical,” said Elad Or, whose 48-year-old brother, Dror, was kidnapped along with his two children at their home in a kibbutz near the border with Gaza. Dror’s wife was killed in the attack.

The couple’s children, who were released as part of the November deal, shared harrowing details about their conditions in captivity: bombs shaking the earth and scant food and water. Or said he and other relatives of hostages have embraced more confrontational tactics in recent days because the government’s current strategy isn’t working “and time is running out.”

“We are demanding that they make life a priority,” he said. “This is my only chance to see my brother again. And this is my niece and nephew’s only chance to have a parent.”

Outside Netanyahu’s gated residence, where protesters pitched tents this week, volunteers bring them cookies, sweet bread and soup. Neighbors approach timidly, offering to wash laundry, charge cellphones or provide a hot shower.

Israelis have been fixated on the plight of the hostages, posting their pictures on social media and wearing dog tag necklaces in their honor. Seemingly every street corner in the country features placards that say: “Bring them home now.”

Still, there is not consensus among Israelis or their government when it comes to another cease-fire, said Mairav Zonszein, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. Ultimately, she said, public support for an agreement “comes down to what the actual details of a deal would be.”

Protesters hold up signs for hostages in Gaza during a march.

A poster at the rally features the image of one of the hostages held in Gaza.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Many Israelis and right-wing members of Netanyahu’s government believe any deal conditioned on Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners is equivalent to defeat.

But as the families of hostages grow increasingly active and Israeli casualties mount — with 24 soldiers killed in Gaza in a single day this week — even some military leaders have begun questioning Netanyahu’s strategy and urging him to negotiate.

A bystander who is voicing support for Prime Minister Netanyahu argues with passing protesters.

A bystander who is voicing support for Prime Minister Netanyahu argues with passing protesters.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, a senior minister in Israel’s wartime Cabinet, said this week that Netanyahu’s vow to eradicate terrorists from Gaza is unrealistic. “We didn’t topple Hamas,” he said.

Eisenkot, whose son was killed while fighting in Gaza in December, said preserving the lives of captives should be the priority, whatever the cost.

“It’s not possible to return the hostages alive without a deal,” he said.

Globally, Netanyahu has faced calls to dial back the war, including from the United States, which provides Israel with extensive weaponry and has criticized the scale of death and destruction in Gaza.

Adding to the pressure is an accusation from South Africa at the International Court of Justice that Israel is carrying out a genocide in Gaza. The court is expected to rule Friday on whether it will ask for an emergency suspension of Israel’s military actions while it debates the merits of the case.

Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will pursue its war regardless of the court’s decision. “Nobody will stop us,” he said this month. “Not The Hague … not anybody else.”

Families of the hostages have met repeatedly with government officials and in recent weeks have become convinced that Israel’s leaders are prioritizing a military assault over reaching a deal to bring the prisoners home.

Protesters hold up signs during a march.

Protesters rally in a Jerusalem street Wednesday.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t feel like they’re taking us seriously,” said Dalia Cusnir, 42, whose two brothers-in-law were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz and remain in captivity.

“We feel like we were abandoned and betrayed on Oct. 7,” she said. “And we feel like we’ve been abandoned and betrayed over and over again since.”

She is one of dozens of protesters who burst into the Knesset, or parliament, on Monday, interrupting a committee meeting.

“Yesterday, the prime minister stands up and says there won’t be a deal,” yelled one of them, Zohar Avigdori. “On the backs on whom?”

At another Knesset hearing this week, a released hostage, Aviva Siegel, testified that she was witness to sexual violence perpetrated on other hostages while in Gaza.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” she said, adding that the victims consisted of both women and men.

“Right now someone is being raped in a tunnel,” her daughter, Shir, told lawmakers.

Yair Moses, whose 79-year-old father was taken hostage, said the families will adopt more radical actions so that officials keep the crisis top of mind.

“We can’t sleep at night,” said Moses, who has held vigil outside Netanyahu’s home. “And we don’t want them to be able to sleep either.”

A woman joins others in protesting in the dark outside.

Gabriela Leimberg, 59, who survived captivity as a hostage in Gaza, joins others in Jerusalem on Wednesday in protesting and raising awareness for the hostages still being held.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

On Wednesday evening, several hundred protesters turned out for a rally in support of the hostages. As they marched near Jerusalem’s Old City, they faced shouts from passersby who oppose a cease-fire.

Leah Amit, a 29-year-old who identifies as center-right, said she attended the rally because she is worried about the direction of the country.

“It doesn’t feel like they have everything under control,” she said.

“Netanyahu is saying we’re winning the war,” she said. “But nobody feels like we’re winning anything.”

Some said Netanyahu, who before the war broke out was the target of months of street protests calling for his removal, seems focused on his political survival.

He is fighting an array of corruption charges, and critics say he wants to maintain power in order to stay out of jail.

“For his political survival, he needs the war to continue,” protester Gilad Kaplan said. “If the hostages come back, he doesn’t have a reason to continue the war.”

The nightly protests outside Netanyahu’s home have drawn even former hostages.

Gabriela Leimberg, 59, was kidnapped from a kibbutz along with several family members. After spending more than a month in captivity, wondering each day whether it would be their last, they were all released except for Leimberg’s brother and brother-in-law.

Leimberg said she is pushing for a negotiated hostage release because she remembers, while still in captivity, the hope she felt when she heard news of possible negotiations.

A protester holds a sign at night

A peace protester in Jerusalem.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“The only way for them to come back is with a deal,” she said.

Until then, she said, she feels a piece of her is with the captives in Gaza.

“When I eat warm food, I think about them,” she said. “When I put on warm clothing, I think about them. I’m anguished.”

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