JERUSALEM: Relatives of hostages held by Hamas 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 captives released as the war in Gaza drags on.
A group representing families of the hostages said they had "begged for 105 days" and now demanded the government show leadership and take bold steps to free the hostages. 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 several signs of growing strife in Israel over the direction of the war, which is in its fourth month.
Israel's leadership faces conflicting pressures. Under heat to appease members of his right-wing governing coalition by intensifying the war against Hamas, Netanyahu also must contend with calls for restraint from ally the United States and from the families of hostages, which fear that escalating military activity further endangers the captives' lives.
The Israeli leader 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. They say Netanyahu is stalling to prevent conflict within his coalition.
Israel launched its war against Hamas following the militant group's unprecedented Oct. 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in Israel and saw about 250 others taken hostage from the country's south. Health authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza say Israel's offensive has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.
The offensive, one of the most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has pulverized much of the 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.
Netanyahu has insisted that the only way to secure the hostages’ return is by crushing Hamas through military means. But relatives of the remaining captives have escalated their campaign for a deal to free their loved ones.
More than 100 hostages, mostly women and children, were released during a brief November cease-fire in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and minors imprisoned by Israel. Israel has said that more than 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but only about 100 are believed to be alive.
Eisenkot, who is one of the five members of Israel’s War Cabinet and whose son was killed in December while fighting in Gaza, has called into question Netanyahu’s insistence that only Israel’s blistering air and ground offensive would bring the hostages home.
The hostages “will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting,” Eisenkot said during a television interview late Thursday.
On Friday, the father of a 28-year-old man held by Hamas since Oct. 7 began what he called a hunger strike outside Netanyahu’s home in the coastal town of Caesarea.
Eli Shtivi, whose son Idan was among those kidnapped from a music festival in southern Israel, pledged to eat only a quarter of a pita a day - the amount of food some hostages reportedly receive some days — until the prime minister agreed to meet with him. Dozens of people who joined Shtivi were still there Saturday.
As part of its search for the hostages, Israel's military dropped leaflets on the territory's southernmost town of Rafah appealing for information. The leaflets, with photos of dozens of hostages, carried a message suggesting benefits for anyone who spoke up.
“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 with images and names of the hostages in Arabic.
Al-Majd al-Amni, a media outlet linked to the Hamas internal security force, warned Palestinians against supplying any information about Israeli soldiers held hostage in Gaza. The warning came hours after the leaflets were dropped.
The war has rippled across the Middle East, with Iranian-backed groups attacking U.S. and Israeli targets. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon threatens to erupt into all-out war, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to target international shipping in the Red Sea despite U.S.-led airstrikes.
On Saturday, an Israeli strike on Syria's capital destroyed a building used by the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, killing at least four Iranians, Syrian and Iranian state media reported. Also Saturday, an Israeli drone strike on a car near the Lebanese port city of Tyre killed two people, the state-run National News Agency reported. It was not immediately clear who the target was.
In Gaza, residents reached by phone after 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 over the last couple of days and that bombing was intense overnight into Saturday.
The fighting has forced many families to leave their homes, many of which were reduced to rubble, and Bani Suheila is largely empty, she said.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, meanwhile, mourners gathered Saturday for the funeral of Tawfiq Ajaq, a 17-year-old American Palestinian shot and killed a day earlier near the city of Ramallah.
The circumstances of the shooting remained unclear Saturday, and police said the incident was under investigation.
Israeli police said they received a report Friday regarding a “firearm discharge, ostensibly involving an off-duty law enforcement officer, a soldier and a civilian.” They did not identify who fired, but described the shooting as taking place over people “purportedly engaged in rock-throwing " along a highway.
The teen’s father, Hafez Ajaq, said his son was born and raised in the United States and had been living in the family’s home village in the West Bank for the past year. Ajaq expressed anger at the U.S. government, which has provided diplomatic and military support for Israel in its war against Hamas.
“They are killer machines,” he said, referring to Israeli forces. “They are using our tax dollars in the U.S. to support the weapons to kill our own children.”
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. “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 settlers against Palestinians.