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Protest tents spring up in Tel Aviv to push for hostages’ return

TEL AVIV (JTA) — For most of this year, Kaplan Street in the center of this city was known as the site of mass protests. Slogans and signs lined the avenue and, every Saturday night, tens or hundreds of thousands of Israelis would gather to demonstrate against the government. 

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, in which thousands were killed and wounded, and hundreds taken captive, those protests have ceased. But another one, smaller, more somber and subdued, has taken their place. 

This new protest also opposes the government, but instead of calling for a change to the legislative agenda, it’s demanding that Israel’s leaders do more to free the over 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. It is centered on two makeshift encampments on each side of the Kirya, Israel’s central military base and the seat of the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces. Dozens of protesters, including relatives of the hostages, stay there from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. to push for the captives’ return.

“We are here opposite the people who need to release them,” said Itzik, 73, a history teacher who declined to share his full name and had been coming to Kaplan for a few days. He is a family friend of Liri Albag, an 18-year old soldier who was taken captive while on duty at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border.

“I do not have the strength to volunteer with all the physical efforts,” Itzik said. “But here I am able to give something by strengthening the families with my presence.”

In the wake of the massacre, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly unpopular, with a recent poll showing that most Israelis want him to resign after the war. But following Oct. 7 and Israel’s ensuing war against Hamas in Gaza, Israelis have also described a newfound unity of purpose following years of deepening political divisions. 

The protest on Kaplan is something of an exception: Some participants call on Netanyahu to resign now, not later, and get into shouting matches with his supporters. Others are less focused on the prime minister and hope to maintain a nonpartisan call for the release of the hostages, including calling for negotiations toward their freedom, possibly as part of a prisoner exchange.

“Bibi and his gang need to go,” said Miri Lahat, 73, who was at an anti-Netanyahu demonstration on Kaplan on Sunday and has been protesting against him for seven years. “The government betrayed us twice … by getting us into this situation and failing to release the hostages.”

Hundreds of posters line the busy street in Hebrew and English, similar to the ones now wallpapering major cities across the United States. They display the word “Kidnapped” in all capital letters along with the name and photo of a hostage, and some biographical details. Several signs read, “Free the hostages now!”

Other initiatives across Israel also aim to draw attention to the hostages. Just blocks away from the tents, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a Shabbat table with 200 empty chairs symbolized the captive Israelis. Israeli tech workers have organized to help identify their missing fellow citizens. Family members of the hostages have held press conferences and met with the country’s leaders and other heads of state. 

Itzik is one of dozens of volunteers who came to Kaplan to support the families of the hostages, in addition to hundreds of visitors who stopped by to tie yellow ribbons on their arms — an international symbol for the return of hostages. Countless cars honked to show support throughout the day. 

A protester in Tel Aviv calling for the return of hostages. (Eliyahu Freedman)

Setting up a protest tent is something of a tradition in Israeli activism. The parents of Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, set up a tent opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and stayed there for 15 months until their son was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2011. That same year, Israelis camped out on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest of the country’s high cost of living. This year, opponents of Netayahu’s effort to weaken the judiciary briefly camped out near the country’s parliament in Jerusalem.

Dafna Sheer, a 70-year old Israeli living in Hofit, a coastal town about 25 miles north of the protest tents, said she came to Kaplan on Sunday because she is “heartbroken” by the thought that “it could have been my grandchild” who was taken captive. She also blames Netanyahu for the recent disaster and current response. “He must resign,” she said bluntly. 

One of the protesters holding a sign opposite passersby was Tamar Bialik, 49, a Tel Aviv resident and member of Israel’s trance music community, which was devastated by a Hamas massacre at a rave near the Gaza border on Oct. 7. She said she went from “shiva to shiva” before arriving at the Kaplan tent to advocate for two friends who were abducted by Hamas terrorists at the music festival. 

Ilan Avraham, 56, was like a father for the Israeli trance community,” she said. “Since he was 16, he would go to trance parties every week while Moran Stela [Yanai] just had a jewelry shop at the Nova festival.” 

She added that the country’s trance community has a history rooted in trauma. It blossomed, she said, to reflect “true love” after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

“Going to many shivas is the first time I learned where my friends live and what they do,” she said. “These details are not relevant for the trance community, which is about complete freedom.”

A group of visitors last week represented Israel’s Masorti movement, the country’s version of Conservative Judaism, and included several American rabbis who led prayers at the site. Since their visit, the 5 p.m. afternoon prayer service has become a part of the daily ritual at the camp.

“Last Tuesday, I was invited to come be with the Masorti movement, to come here and listen to people,” said Israeli-American Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who leads Lab/Shul in New York and was part of the group that visited on Tuesday. “We created a circle and sang songs and did a prayer for the healing and captives — then we invited anyone who wanted to do Mincha to join.”

The prayer service was one stop on Lau-Lavie’s extended trip around the country to provide pastoral care for traumatized Israelis, including a visit to a hotel where members of his own family have relocated after their kibbutz was attacked on Oct. 7. 

As painful as the current moment is, Lau-Lavie said Jews throughout history have joined together to call for the return of captives. 

“People need to stand together and in the absence of words, or singing, people need to know that they are not alone” he said. “The fact that we have in our archive a 2,000-year-old prayer for the release of captives shows that we have been here before.”

The post Protest tents spring up in Tel Aviv to push for hostages’ return appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Flip through the digital edition of the Summer 2024 print magazine from The Canadian Jewish News

We’ve produced a collection of feature articles four times a year since 2022. A special edition of this magazine will appear in mid-September—with reflections on the Jewish year that was. And in December, look out for a reimagined publication with a name of its own. Get future copies delivered to your door as a thank-you […]

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Top US Official Calls Hamas Leader Sinwar a ‘Psychopath,’ ‘Messianic’ as Ceasefire Talks Swirl

Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a meeting with people at a hall on the seashore in Gaza City. Photo: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images/Sipa via Reuters Connect

A senior US official said that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is the Palestinian terrorist group’s ultimate decision maker and has little interest in reaching a ceasefire deal with Israel, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there’s one guy 10 stories below the ground: a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history, and [he believes that] there’s a sunk cost of having lost thousands of fighters and carnage in Gaza,” said Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza and the mastermind behind the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, has reportedly been hiding in Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels during Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the coastal enclave.

Leaf’s comments echo others made by Biden administration officials.

In April, a US official told reporters that Sinwar is single-handedly holding up any progress on a potential hostage deal.

The senior Biden administration official said that while Hamas’ political bureau has shown some willingness to compromise on the terrorist group’s most hardline positions, Sinwar’s maximalist demands continuously win out.

“Sinwar has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7] than secure a ceasefire, and that’s just the truth of the situation,” the official said.

Leaf, in her testimony on Tuesday, said that Qatar — where many top Hamas political officials are based — has been “squeezing” the group — though to little effect, according to a report from Axios.

“There’s a cadre of political officials of Hamas in Doha, and boy do they squeeze them, I can assure you they squeeze them,” Leaf said.

Israel has described Hamas’ response to the new US ceasefire proposal as total rejection. But efforts to secure an agreement are still continuing, according to mediators in Qatar and Egypt, backed by the United States.

The Axios report added that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani met on Tuesday in Doha — Qatar’s capital — with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the talks about the hostage and ceasefire deal.

Egypt and Qatar — which along with the United States have been mediating between Hamas and Israel — said on June 11 that they had received a response from the Palestinian groups to the US plan, without giving further details.

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Blinken Confirms US Pausing Bomb Shipment to Israel After Netanyahu Calls for End to ‘Inconceivable’ Weapons Halt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday confirmed the US was still withholding a shipment of bombs to Israel, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Washington to remove restrictions on arms deliveries to the Jewish state and asserted that the top American diplomat had assured him the Biden administration was working to lift any halts on weapons.

The Biden administration is “continuing to review one shipment that President [Joe] Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area like Rafah. That remains under review,” Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department.

However, he added, the administration is committed to making sure “that Israel has what it needs to effectively defend itself.”

Blinken’s remarks came after Netanyahu posted a video online earlier in the day in which he lamented that the US recently paused a weapons shipment to Israel and threatened to block more but said Blinken told him that Washington was seeking to end any halts on arms deliveries.

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the US has given Israel from the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

“But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” he continued. “Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The Israeli premier then asserted that Blinken told him the issue would be addressed.

“Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks,” Netanyahu said. “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the US: ‘Give us the tools; we’ll do the job.’ And I say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job much faster.’”

Following Netanyahu’s comments, both the White House and the US State Department refuted his apparent claim that Washington was withholding more than a single shipment of bombs.

“Everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again, with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” Blinken said.

The White House echoed Blinken’s comments, saying that only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs had been withheld and nothing else.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We just don’t.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US and Israel have been having discussions about the release of the shipment but that there was no update at this time.

“There are no other pauses, none,” Jean-Pierre said. “No other pauses or holds in place.”

On Monday, unconfirmed reports in both Israeli and German media said that during Netanyahu’s meeting with Blinken in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli premier urged the US to return the frequency of its arms shipments to the level immediately after Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched the war in Gaza with its massacre across southern Israel. According to the reports, Blinken said that Washington would remove all restrictions on weapons transfers to Israel in the coming days.

Netanyahu also reportedly warned Blinken that the slowing of aid and the perception of America’s weakened support for Israel benefits Iran and its terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas, emboldening them to intensify attacks against Israel and potentially resulting in a broader regional war.

The Biden administration has been under intense pressure from Democrats, especially those on the progressive left, to condition if not outright withhold US military support for Israel. Critics of Israel have argued the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed too many civilians and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has said Hamas is to blame for starting the war, stealing aid, and intentionally placing its operation centers inside or underneath civilian sites.

Hamas started the war with its surprise invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, when the terrorist group murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped over 250 others as hostages. Israel responded with its ongoing campaign aimed at freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas, which rules Gaza.

In recent months, the Biden administration has become increasingly critical of Israel’s operations both in public and private, pressuring Jerusalem to change its military strategy and seek a ceasefire.

The issue came to a head last month, when Biden announced that it would cease a bomb shipment to Israel and threatened to halt more weapons deliveries if the Israeli army launched an offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza and Hamas’ last major military stronghold.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN.

Israeli officials and experts have said operating in Rafah is essential to eliminating the last remaining Hamas battalions. Netanyahu said the Jewish state appreciates US support but “will stand alone” if necessary.

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