The families of more than 220 prisoners kidnapped by Hamas have demanded answers from the Israeli government, as many fear a military assault on the Gaza Strip could put the lives of the captives at risk.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped planning for war and held a hastily arranged meeting on Saturday with captive families after they threatened to start street protests to highlight their desperation.
As the meeting continued, Hamas said that Israel would be forced to release all Palestinian prisoners from its prisons to ensure the release of hostages taken by Hamas fighters on October 7.
Netanyahu did not commit to any agreement, but told the families: “We will exhaust all possibilities to return them home,” according to a video clip published by his office. He added that finding the hostages, whose ages ranged from a few months to more than 80 years, was an “integral part” of the military operation.
In a subsequent press conference with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant said that Hamas must be forced to the negotiating table, but that the matter is “very complicated.”
He added: “The more military pressure, the more firepower, the more we hit Hamas, the more chances we have of getting it to a place where you agree to a solution that allows your loved ones to return.”
“Every minute is forever”
The government says it has confirmed the kidnapping of 229 hostages from more than 20 countries on October 7. The military wing of Hamas says “nearly 50” hostages have been killed in daily Israeli air strikes on Gaza.
Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, said in a statement: “We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance.”
Thousands of Palestinians are detained in 19 prisons in Israel and one prison inside the occupied West Bank.
A representative of the families told Netanyahu that they support a full prisoner exchange.
“With regard to the families, an immediate return deal for our family members under the ‘all-for-all’ principle is possible, and there will be broad national support for this,” said Merav Gonen, the actress. Her daughter, Romy, is one of the prisoners.
Chaim Rubinstein, spokesman for the Forum for Hostages and Missing Families, said Israeli families are increasingly angry because of the “absolute uncertainty” they face over the fate of prisoners, especially in violent bombings.
Hundreds of relatives of Israeli prisoners marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday, threatening to organize more street protests if a government minister did not meet with them on the same day. Demonstrations in support of the families of the prisoners also took place in Haifa, Atlit, Caesarea, Beersheba and Eilat.
“Families don’t sleep, they want answers, and they deserve answers,” Rubinstein said.
The hostages’ families say they have had no significant contact with the government.
“We don’t know anything about what happened to them. We don’t know if they were shot, or if they went to a doctor,” said Inbal Zak, 38, whose cousin Tal Shoham was kidnapped from Kibbutz Beri near the Gaza fence along with six other members of his family. Or if they have food.
“We’re just so worried about them.”
“Waiting for clarification”
Families are divided over what action to take. Some believe that a hardline stance toward Hamas is justified, while others say an agreement should be reached.
When asked about Hamas’s demand to release Palestinian prisoners, Ifat Calderon, whose cousin is being held hostage, said: “Take them, we don’t need them here. I want my family and all the hostages to return to their homes, because they are citizens, not soldiers.”
The demonstration in Tel Aviv followed one of the most violent nights of the war, as the army bombed Gaza.
“None of the members of the War Cabinet bothered to meet with the families of the hostages to explain one thing: whether the ground operation endangered the safety of the 229 hostages,” the forum said in a statement.
“Families are worried about the fate of their loved ones and waiting for an explanation. Every minute feels like an eternity.”
Sources told Al Jazeera on Friday that Qatari-brokered negotiations regarding a ceasefire and prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas “are progressing and at an advanced stage.”
But Israel’s increasing air and artillery attacks, communications cuts, and ground incursions appear to have hampered truce discussions.
Israel says Hamas killed 1,400 people, most of them civilians, when its fighters stormed the border on October 7.
More than 7,700 people were killed in retaliatory Israeli raids on Gaza, including about 3,500 children, according to the Ministry of Health.
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