Israeli captives families protest outside Netanyahu's home, ramping up pressure for a truce deal

AP , Saturday 20 Jan 2024

Relatives of prisoners held in Gaza protested Saturday outside the home of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing frustration over his government’s seeming lack of progress in getting the more than 100 individuals released as the Israeli war on Gaza drags on.

Relatives and friends of hostages sit on a street outside the private residence of the Israeli Prime
Relatives and friends of hostages sit on a street outside the private residence of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Caesarea, Israel. AP


A group representing families of the war captives said they had "begged for 105 days" and now demanded that the government show leadership and take bold steps to free the captives. A member of Israel’s War Cabinet has called a cease-fire the only way to secure their release, a comment that implied criticism of Israel's current strategy.

The protest outside the prime minister's home and the remark by former Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot were among signs of growing strife in Israel over the direction of the war in its fourth month.

Netanyahu has said he will push for “complete victory” against Hamas but has not outlined how he would achieve it.

Critics have accused him of preventing a Cabinet-level debate about a post-war scenario for Gaza, saying Netanyahu was stalling in hopes of avoiding conflict that could potentially break up his right-wing ruling coalition.

Israel's war has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.

The aggression, one of the most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has pulverized much of the Palestinian territory and displaced more than 80% of its population of 2.3 million people. An Israeli blockade that allows only a trickle of aid into Gaza has led to widespread hunger and outbreaks of disease, United Nations officials have said.

More than 100 captives were released during a brief November ceasefire in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli jails. Israel has said that more than 130 captives remain in Gaza, but only about 100 are believed to be alive.

On Friday, the father of a 28-year-old man who has been held by Hamas began what he called a hunger strike outside Netanyahu’s home in the coastal town of Caesarea, until the prime minister agreed to meet with him. Dozens of people joined Shtivi late Friday and were still there Saturday morning.

Eisenkot, the former army chief who is one of the five members of Israel’s War Cabinet, has called into question Netanyahu’s insistence that only Israel's blistering air and ground offensive would bring the captives home.

Eisenkot, whose son was killed in December while fighting in Gaza, said during a television interview late Thursday that claiming the captives could be freed without a deal and a cease-fire “is to spread illusions.”

The captives “will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting,” he said. Dramatic rescue operations are unlikely because the captives are spread out, many of them in underground tunnels, he said.

As part of its search for the captives, Israel's occupation army dropped leaflets on the territory's southernmost town of Rafah that asked people to provide information about the captives. The leaflets, with photos of dozens of captives, carried a message suggesting benefits for anyone providing information.

“You want to return home? Please report if you identified one of them,” read the message, which also listed a phone number and a link to a website containing images and names of the captives in Arabic.

In Gaza, residents reached by phone following the end of a seven-day communications blackout reported heavy bombardment and fighting between militants and Israeli troops Saturday morning in and around the southern city of Khan Younis and the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya in the north.

Israeli warplanes and shelling hammered areas in and east of Khan Younis, with gun battles raging overnight into the early morning in Bani Suheila, a town on the city's outskirts, residents said. 

Halima Abdel-Rahman, a woman displaced from northern Gaza who has sheltered in Bani Suheila since November, said Israeli airstrikes hit several buildings in the town over the last couple of days and that bombing was intense overnight into Saturday.

The fighting has forced hundred of thousands of families to leave their homes, many of which were reduced to rubble, and Bani Suheila is largely empty, she said.

In Jabaliya, “the heavy bombing returned,” with Israeli warplanes striking buildings and open areas, local fisherman Assad Abu Radwan said.

Israel withdrew a significant number of troops from the northern half of Gaza earlier this week after the military said it had broken up Hamas command structures there. However, Hamas gunmen continued putting up resistance in parts of northern Gaza, prompting renewed questions in Israel about the feasibility of the government's goal.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, meanwhile, mourners gathered Saturday for the funeral of a 17-year-old American Palestinian who was shot and killed a day earlier near the city of Ramallah.

Friends of the teenager identified him as Tawfiq Ajaq and said the family had returned to its home village in the West Bank from Harvey, Louisiana, about a year ago.

Asked about the shooting, U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby said officials at the White House were “seriously concerned about these reports.”

“We don’t have perfect context about exactly what happened here,” Kirby said. “Seriously concerned about it. And we’re going to be in constant touch with counterparts in the region to — to get more information.”

In recent months, the Biden administration has repeatedly expressed concern about growing volatility in the West Bank, including violence by terrorist settlers against Palestinians.

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