Ido Shamriz turned his eulogy for his brother, Alon, into a protest.
Against all odds, Mr. Shamriz said, his brother had survived 70 days of captivity in Gaza and escaped — only to be shot and killed by Israeli soldiers along with two other hostages waving white flags. Those “who abandoned you also murdered you,” Mr. Shamriz said.
In other words, the state failed to protect Alon on Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel and again on Dec. 15, the day he was killed.
The accidental killing of the three hostages by Israeli troops shifted the public mood in Israel from despair and grief to indignation and fury.
The released hostages, their families and the families of those who remain in Gaza have emerged not only as the Israeli government’s loudest critics in its war effort, a symbol of its failure to guard its people, but also as the main pressure group within Israel pushing for a political path to release the remaining hostages, which many of them say Israel cannot solely achieve by fighting.
The hostages who have returned and are gradually telling their stories also represent a unique group of Israelis: those who have been on the receiving end of Israeli airstrikes and thus have a small sense of what Gazans are going through. You can see on some of their faces the trauma and sense of betrayal.
Several released hostages have said that Israeli airstrikes were one of their greatest fears while being held in Gaza. On their return, some warned the cabinet that Israel’s military offensive is endangering the remaining hostages.
Hagar Brodutch was released from Gaza during the weeklong pause in late November with her three children as well as Avigail Idan, a 4-year-old Israeli American whose parents were murdered on Oct. 7. Ms. Brodutch has spoken to the Israeli press about how the five of them were under constant bombardments by the Israel Defense Forces while in captivity.
“It’s hard to explain to a couple of 4-year-olds,” she told Israeli television, “that the one bombing them is the I.D.F. It is their own army that was supposed to protect them there, in their homes, where it instead abandoned them. Now it is shelling them while they are in Gaza.”
Israeli leadership insists its war objectives are the dismantling of Hamas alongside the return of the hostages. The families of the hostages — and many Israelis — have maintained since Oct. 7 that there can be no victory without the safe return of all the hostages and that returning those still held in Gaza must be the priority. When Israel resumed its offensive after a weeklong cease-fire and hostage exchange in late November, some of the families of the hostages began accusing the government of giving up on the captives.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, have explained again and again that only the ground offensive can bring back the hostages. But thus far, only one hostage, an Israeli soldier, has been rescued, at the very outset of the ground invasion and under murky circumstances. The hostages released by Hamas in late November were part of a deal mediated by Qatar and the United States. Of the remaining 136 hostages, 23 are presumed dead, including one who was killed in a failed rescue attempt.
For weeks now, hostages’ families and released hostages have camped out near the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. They demand that Israel pursue a diplomatic track alongside its military operations. Though there seems to be consensus among them, as there is in the wider Israeli public, that Hamas must go, the families claim there is time for that, but not for their loved ones.
Representatives of the hostages’ families stress that with every day in captivity, the lives of their loved ones are more at risk.
Nearly three months into the war, the Israeli government says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants and detained hundreds, destroyed hundreds of tunnels or at least their shafts and struck thousands of weapons and infrastructure targets. But such tactical successes have not yielded a strategic breakthrough like dismantling Hamas or freeing the hostages.
Though release of hostages was not defined as an objective at the outset of this war, the determination of the hostages’ families and the media changed that. But as the war drags on, the fate of the remaining hostages seems to have slipped in priority. By demanding Israel negotiate for their release now, the hostages’ families and their advocateswant Israel to acknowledge the necessity of making sacrifices and concessions, including releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Complicating the calculation of trying to simultaneously execute the war and rescue the hostages, it is widely believed that Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has surrounded himself with hostages for his own protection. If so, it appears increasingly plausible that striking a deal with Hamas that entails ending the war entirely — or substantially scaling it down (by withdrawing Israeli troops to the border) — is the only way to return the captives. That’s not a fringe position: It’s one both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo have endorsed.
The fact that the Israeli government has not articulated an endgame, for either the war or its conflict with the Palestinians, has put its top two objectives, destroying Hamas and getting the hostages back, on a collision course. Hamas is unlikely to release all the Israelis it is holding without a guarantee of a cessation of the war, and with it, its survival. The alternative, not just for Mr. Netanyahu but also for the Israeli political establishment, would mean having to confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on, through political, not solely military, means.
But Mr. Netanyahu has built his career on rejecting Palestinian rights and statehood (as he recently boasted) without offering any vision for what might come in its stead, beyond the need for Israel to continue living by the sword.
In demanding Israel first save their loved ones, families of hostages are calling on Israel to do something radical — embrace political negotiations to reach a desired outcome. In that sense, this moment clarifies a clear choice for Israelis: endless fighting or political engagement toward a more desirable outcome; hope or despair; life or death.
Mairav Zonszein is a journalist and a senior Israel analyst with the International Crisis Group.
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