Israeli Hostage Families have ‘Nothing to Lose’ in Push for New Deal

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Demonstrators on Monday stand near red liquid that was thrown on the road to symbolize blood as they call for the release of the hostages held in Gaza.

JERUSALEM – Frustration is turning to fury for Israel’s hostage families. After three agonizing months of waiting for their children, parents and spouses to be freed, the hyper-organized community is growing more desperate, and more militant.

On Monday, a group of hostage advocates stormed two committee meetings of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, refusing to budge as they yelled at lawmakers, “You will not sit here while they die there.”

Over the weekend, a hunger striker joined a protest encampment in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private home in the coastal city of Caesarea. Another round-the-clock vigil – dubbed the “Time Has Run Out” encampment – occupies an intersection near his official residence in Jerusalem. Protesters poured a red liquid, symbolizing blood, onto the busy street Monday night.

“My fingers are blue, but it’s colder in those tunnels,” said Efrat Machikawa, blowing on her hands in the drizzly winter chill at the site Tuesday. In front of a half-dozen tents, others stood holding posters of those still held by Hamas, including Machikawa’s 79-year-old uncle, Gadi Moses.

“There must be a deal now,” she said of the captives marking time in the darkness beneath Gaza. “They are dying.”

At the start of their ordeal, many of the families felt torn between fear for their kidnapped relatives and support for Israel’s battle against Hamas. But they say something shifted last week when the country marked 100 days of war with no new momentum toward freeing their loved ones.

Some 132 hostages remain in captivity, although the Israeli prime minister’s office says 28 are believed to have died – either of their injuries or at the hands of Hamas. In December, three hostages were mistakenly killed by Israeli troops in Gaza as they tried to escape while waving white flags and shouting in Hebrew. Hamas has claimed, without evidence, that dozens of hostages have been killed in Israeli strikes.

In the early days of the war, “We couldn’t attack the government because the government was responsible for bringing our loved ones back,” said Shahar Mor Zahiro, one of the protesters who disrupted the Knesset on Monday. His uncle Abraham Munder turned 79 in Gaza.

Now, “society is cracking at the seams,” Zahiro said. “A lot of families took the gloves off. We have nothing to lose anymore.”

On Wednesday, protesters declared a “day of rage,” with nationwide events calling for the immediate release of the hostages.

For months, the families – with advice from a volunteer army of Tel Aviv-based publicists, strategists and graphic designers – have mounted large-scale demonstrations, met with officials and papered the country with hostage posters. Some, like Machikawa, have traveled abroad to drum up global awareness.

The campaign is credited with making the release of the hostages a top war goal, on par with the pledge to “destroy Hamas” made by Netanyahu and other leaders immediately after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

One hundred and five captives, mostly women, children and foreign nationals, were released in late November as part of a negotiated humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas. Since then, there has been little visible progress toward a new deal.

As they wait for news, the families of those still inside have been further traumatized by the testimony trickling out from released hostages – harrowing accounts of people sleeping with dead bodies and sexual assault.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” former hostage Aviva Siegel told the Knesset on Tuesday, describing sexual abuse she said she witnessed in the tunnels. “The boys also go through abuse, what the girls go through. . . . They are also puppets on a string.”

The families’ anger has taken on more urgency as Israel shifts to a new phase of the war in Gaza, one expected to depend less on widespread bombing and more on targeted raids, likely to last for months or even years. The transition has opened new divisions over how long, and how hard, to keep fighting.

“There is a growing understanding that it might take much longer to dismantle Hamas, but the hostages don’t have a long time,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

For months, the families’ demands have been fundamental – they want the government to free the hostages by the fastest means possible. “Bring them home now” is the most common slogan, and the name of the largest umbrella group of hostage relatives.

But more families are now coalescing around the demand for an immediate cease-fire, one that would open the way for a second negotiated deal with Hamas. Some have endorsed a controversial “all for all” agreement that would free the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, some convicted of killing civilians, in exchange for the hostages.

Right-wing ministers in the Israeli government have rejected the proposal, saying it would feed potential fighters back to Hamas and other militant groups. Sixty percent of Jewish Israelis oppose such a deal, according to poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Israel’s military is already beginning to draw down some troops in Gaza, where the ongoing offensive has killed more than 25,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. At least 9,000 militants have been killed, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli officials say they have largely disabled Hamas as a military force in the northern part of the enclave and are making progress in the south.

But military leaders are adamant that it was combat that brought Hamas to the bargaining table for the first release deal, and that combat will bring them back.

“This pressure, and only it, has succeeded in returning many hostages,” Chief of Staff Gen. Herzi Halevi said in an address marking 100 days of war. “The Hamas leadership pins its hopes on a cease-fire and is convinced that this moment is near.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly and publicly rejected the idea of pausing the military assault until Israel achieves what he calls “total victory” – “eliminating Hamas, returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will never again constitute a threat to Israel.”

In private, though, he has signaled more flexibility, according to a person who works closely with the hostage families. Netanyahu told family representatives in a meeting Monday that Israel had presented a new proposal for a hostage deal to intermediaries, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the off-the-record meeting. He said Netanyahu did not describe details of the offer other than to say it would require Israel to “give as well as get.”

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Hostage families said they have learned to be skeptical.

“Our prime minister has been talking a lot for the last 109 days, but he doesn’t do anything,” said Machikawa, standing in front of the new encampment. Organizers say it will shadow Netanyahu until the hostages come home.