Families of Israeli detainees arrive in Jerusalem, gather at PM’s office | Israel-Palestine conflict news

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Tens of thousands of protesters have arrived in Jerusalem after a five-day march from Tel Aviv to pressure the Israeli government to immediately release prisoners held by Hamas in Gaza.

About 20,000 demonstrators, including family and friends of about 240 detainees, held a rally in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Saturday. They say that the government has been ignoring their appeal to prioritize bringing their loved ones home.

The riders walked for hours on the highway connecting the two cities, holding posters of the prisoners with the slogan, “Bring them home now.”

They want to put pressure on the government to “do everything they can to bring back the enemies”, said Noam Alon, 25, holding a picture of his girlfriend, Inbar.

“We expect them to meet with us, we expect them to tell us how they are going to do it,” he told Reuters news agency. “We can’t wait any longer, so we have a request [ing] to do that now, to pay any price to bring back the shackles.”

Hours after the march, Netanyahu promised to meet with the families on Monday. “We walk with you, I walk with you. All of Israel will walk beside you,” he said at a press conference.

Regarding the detainees, he said “there are many rumors and inaccurate reports”.

“I want to clarify that no deals have been made so far, but I promise you once we have something, I will let you know.”

The prisoners were captured during the October 7 attack by the Palestinian group on southern Israel, which also left 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians. Since then, Israel has launched a massive air and ground offensive on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, killing more than 12,000 people, mostly civilians.

A spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said on Saturday that they have lost contact with some of the groups responsible for the safety of detainees in the Gaza Strip.

“It is still unknown what happened to the prisoners and those who are holding them after we lost contact with them,” he said.

Many relatives and friends fear that they will be harmed in Israeli attacks on Gaza designed to destroy Hamas. The government says the offensive improves the chances of getting prisoners back by putting pressure on Hamas.

Among those who marched on Jerusalem was centrist leader Yair Lapid, who has mostly supported the war but has called on Netanyahu to resign.

Miki Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet and party, was harassed on Friday when he visited the marchers during a ceasefire.

Family members, friends and supporters of Israelis and other nationalities who were kidnapped on October 7 by Hamas during a deadly attack during the final stage of their march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, November 18, 2023. [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]
Family members, friends and supporters of Israelis and other nationalities kidnapped by Hamas during the final stage of their march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, November 18, 2023 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

The government is not ‘talking’

Hamas on Monday released a video of the first hostage confirmed to have died in captivity and said earlier that others had been killed.

That has worried activists and relatives asking the Israeli government to speed up any prisoner swap, and frustration with Netanyahu insisting that permission is needed around the talks between Qatari- and Egyptian.

“It is impossible that 240 people have been kidnapped and the government – our government – is not talking to [the relatives], he does not tell them what is going on, what is on the table, what is on offer, what are the reasons for and against it. Nothing,” activist 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 return the prisoners, he said, was a truce lasting long enough to move them safely across the battlefield. Israel has said such a move would allow Hamas to rearm.

“I think that every day that goes on there is a risk – a risk of bombs, a risk of attacks and whatever – of civilians, Israeli civilians, dying in Gaza,” said McTernan told The Associated Press news agency, saying that “should be the priority of any government: to make sure they are safe and that they return to their families”.

A girl carries posters of 27-year-old Eliya Cohen (L) and 10-year-old Ofry Brodutch, both held by Hamas in Gaza. [AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP]
A girl carries posters of 27-year-old Eliya Cohen, left, and 10-year-old Ofry Brodutch, both held by Hamas in Gaza [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]
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