Growing protests call on Netanyahu to bring Hamas hostages home

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TEL AVIV — Family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas braved winter thunderstorms Saturday for a second night of protests since cease-fire negotiations stalled this week, a development that families blame on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thousands gathered outside Israeli military headquarters here chanting “Now! Now! Now!” Demonstrators Thursday shut down a major road in downtown Tel Aviv; a group of hostage family members handcuffed themselves together and blocked the gates during a meeting of the war cabinet.

Some have set off colored smoke bombs and carried posters depicting Netanyahu’s son Yair as a hostage with the legend: “How would it be different it was him?”

On Friday, protesters fired flares in the air and demanded Netanyahu step down. Mounted police and trucks blocked their way. Demonstrators blame the prime minister for the security failures leading to the Hamas attack on Israeli communities on Oct. 7 — when authorities here say militants killed 1,200 people — as well his handling of the war in Gaza and the hostages since.

“Netanyahu has to leave or we’ll never get the hostages home,” said Karen Beltz, a Tel Aviv film producer. She said the protests were beginning to swell, but were still not as large or angry as the anti-government demonstrations that rocked Israel for months last year.

Hamas and allied fighters took more than 253 people hostage on Oct. 7. More than 100 were freed in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian detainees during a November pause in fighting. Israeli authorities believe that more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza.

Advocates warn that time is running out for the hostages, who have been held in Gaza for 19 weeks. They were infuriated when Netanyahu pulled Israel’s team out of cease-fire negotiations in Cairo on Wednesday.

The prime minister said further talks were pointless until Hamas dropped “delusional demands” that Israel withdraw from Gaza and free thousands of detained Palestinians as part of any hostage deal.

Israeli protesters block aid shipments to Gaza

The Cairo meeting, reportedly attended by Mossad head David Barnea, CIA Director William J. Burns and senior Hamas leaders from outside of Gaza, followed reports of progress in Paris talks. Hope rose among the families of the remaining hostages, some of whom are elderly or injured.

Israel estimates that more than two dozen hostages may have died. Officials have made the return of their remains part of the negotiations.

Netanyahu, under pressure from right-wing members of his narrow governing majority to keep up the Gaza offensive, ordered his team out of Egypt in defiance of not only the demands of the hostage families but the growing international outrage over the soaring civilian death toll in Gaza. In three months of war, more than 28,000 Gazans have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Diplomats said the negotiations brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the United States continue. One Israeli familiar with the discussion said Netanyahu’s public statements did not mean he has blocked Israeli negotiators from engaging behind the scenes. “They are still talking,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

But hostage groups reacted with fury. They said Netanyahu was prioritizing the appeasement of his right-wing political base over reaching a deal.

“If the Cairo initiative fails, 134 children and parents will be sacrificed and will die,” the largest family umbrella group said in a statement. “Do not sacrifice them, do not abandon them again.”

One family member after another took the stage Saturday to beseech the government to act.

“Leave politics out of this,” the son of one hostage cried. “Bring them home now.”

Thousands came out despite heavy rain and cold winds through the weekend. Netanyahu has seen his support drop to all-time lows as citizens increasingly hold him accountable for policies that allowed Hamas to flourish, and the collapse of intelligence and security that allowed the militants to lead the Oct. 7 assault.

More than two-thirds of Israelis want to see early elections, polls show, and about a third are ready for them even before the Gaza war is concluded. On Saturday, the leader of Israel’s largest and most influential trade union group called on Netanyahu to step down and face the voters.

“We’re at a dead end, and there’s only one way out — elections,” said Arnon Bar-David, the head of Histadrut, local media reported.

Anger against the prime minister is rising, but analysts say it’s unlikely to reach critical mass until the number of combat forces in Gaza comes down, tensions ease along the border with Lebanon and the hostages are freed.

“There isn’t a sense that we’re in a postwar situation yet,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “But we’re getting there.”

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