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Gaza hostage families storm Israeli parliament meeting to demand their return

Relatives call on Israel's government to do more secure their release – increasing the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as fighting intensifies in southern Gaza

Tom Bennett
Jerusalem
Monday 22 January 2024 19:20 GMT
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Families of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza disrupt Knesset committee

Family members of Israelis held hostage in Gaza have stormed a committee meeting in Israel’s parliament to demand the government steps up efforts to bring their loved ones home.

In chaotic scenes inside the Knesset, one protester cried: “Just one I'd like to get back alive – one out of three.” Others carried placards saying “You will not sit here while they die there”. One Knesset member was seen with her head in her hands, while others tried to calm the situation.

The incident adds to the pressure on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has insisted that keeping up the military campaign against Hamas inside Gaza is the only way to bring the hostages home. At the same time, he has rejected a push from the US as to what comes after the end of the conflict, saying he will never allow a Palestinian state.

“We did it out of frustration and a feeling that the kidnapped are being given up,” Aviram Meir, who stormed the meeting alongside around 20 others, told The Independent. His 22-year-old nephew, Almog Meir-Jan, remains a captive inside Gaza.

The Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October killed 1,200, with around 240 hostages taken back into Gaza. Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas and has launched airstrikes and ground operations inside the Hamas-controlled territory, backed up by a blockade. More than 100 Israelis and other nationals were released in return for 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons as part of a week-long truce at the end of November.

Fighting has intensified in southern Gaza in recent days, particularly in the city of Khan Younis, while health officials in Gaza say 25,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed across more than three months of conflict. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said it had lost all contact with its staff inside the city’s al-Amal hospital, adding that tanks had surrounded the al-Khair hospital.

Aviram Meir, who stormed the committee meeting at Israel’s parliament alongside around 20 others (Tom Bennett)

The storming of the Knesset committee is one of the most drastic steps taken by a number of the relatives of those held in Gaza to date. “They are stepping up the campaign,” said former Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin, who helped in the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 after five years held by Palestinian militants in Gaza. “But they’re not united with all of the families. There are those who don’t want to make more noise.”

The pressure on Mr Netanyahu is clear. Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa to demand an election. In Tel Aviv, some protesters briefly blocked a highway.

Just half an hour’s walk from the Knesset lies one of Mr Netanyahu’s unofficial residences, where, since Sunday, relatives of those held in Gaza have staged a sit-in protest, camping on the pavement to demand the PM steps up efforts to bring the hostages home. Families have also begun camping outside Mr Netanyahu’s other home in the coastal town of Caesarea.

“We are splitting up because we want to be everywhere. Here, in the Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, in Caesarea. So everyone is everywhere. They will sleep here tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, until [Netanyahu] decides to do something,” Dalit Katzenellenbogen, cousin of Israeli hostage Elad Katzir, told The Independent.

Dalit Katzenellenbogen protests outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem on Monday (Tom Bennett)

“I don't care that Netanyahu is prime minister, I don't care if it’s... somebody else on the right or left of the political map. He is now in charge, he is responsible for bringing them back. This is the only goal of his life and the only thing that history will judge him for,” said Eyal Kalderon, whose cousin Ofer Kalderon is still being held in Gaza.

As the protest outside his residence took place, Mr Netanyahu met with another group of hostage families. The PM’s office said Mr Netanyahu told the families that contrary to reports of growing consensus on a ceasefire agreement, “there is no real proposal by Hamas. It’s not true.”

“I am saying this as clearly as I can because there are so many incorrect statements which are certainly agonising for you,” the prime minister said.

Yet his comments appeared to go against his own statement on Sunday, in which he suggested that Hamas had offered to release the hostages in return for “the withdrawal of our forces from Gaza… and leaving Hamas intact”. He said he had rejected the proposal, continuing: “If we agree to this, our soldiers fell in vain. If we agree to this, we will not be able to guarantee the security of our citizens.”

Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, said: “The families know that unless there is pressure to release prisoners and hostages, they might never see their loved ones alive. And whatever Netanyahu says, I don’t believe it’s his number one priority.”

Mr Mekelberg added that Mr Netanyahu needs “a victory” in Gaza or at least “a photo opportunity of a victory – and three and a half months later, there is none”.

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