The families of more than 220 captives seized by Hamas demanded answers from the Israeli government with many fearing a military onslaught on the Gaza Strip is putting the captives’ lives at risk.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke off from war planning for a hastily arranged meeting on Saturday with captive families after they threatened to start street protests to highlight their desperation.
As the meeting went ahead, Hamas said Israel would have to release all Palestinian prisoners from its jails to secure freedom for the hostages seized by Hamas fighters on October 7.
Netanyahu made no commitment to any deal but told the families, “We will exhaust every possibility to bring them home”, according to a video released by his office. Finding the hostages – whose ages range from a few months to more than 80 – was an “integral part” of the military operation, he added.
At a later press conference alongside Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas had to be forced to the negotiating table but that it was “very complex”.
“The more military pressure, the more firepower and the more we strike Hamas – the greater our chances are to bring it to a place where it will agree to a solution that will allow the return of your loved ones,” he said.
‘Every minute an eternity’
The government says it confirmed 229 captives from more than 20 countries were taken on October 7. The Hamas military wing says that “almost 50” hostages have died in the daily Israeli air raids on Gaza.
“We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, said in a statement.
Thousands of Palestinians are held in 19 prisons in Israel and one inside the occupied West Bank.
A representative for the families told Netanyahu they support a full prisoner swap.
“As far as the families are concerned, a deal of a return of our family members immediately in the framework of ‘all for all’ is feasible, and there will be wide national support for this,” said MeIrav Gonen, the representative. Her daughter, Romi, is one of the captives.
Israeli families are increasingly angry over the “absolute uncertainty” they face over the fate of the captives, particularly in the heavy bombings, said Haim Rubinstein, a spokesperson for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.
Hundreds of relatives of the Israeli captives held a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, threatening to hold street more protests if a government minister did not meet them the same day. Demonstrations in support of the captives’ families also occurred in Haifa, Atlit, Caesarea, Be’er Sheva and Eilat.
“The families don’t sleep, they want answers, they deserve answers,” Rubinstein said.
Hostage families say they have had barely any contact with the government.
“We don’t know anything about what happened to them. We don’t know if they were shot, if they saw a doctor, if they have food,” said Inbal Zach, 38, whose cousin Tal Shoham was kidnapped from the Beeri kibbutz near the Gaza fence with six other family members.
“We are just so worried about them.”
‘Waiting for an explanation’
The families are divided over what action to take. Some believe a tough line on Hamas is justified, others say a deal should be made.
When asked about the Hamas demands for a Palestinian prisoner release, Ifat Kalderon, whose cousin is a hostage, said: “Take them, we don’t need them here. I want my family and all the hostages to come back home, they are citizens, they are not soldiers.”
The Tel Aviv rally followed one of the most violent nights of the war with the military hammering Gaza.
“None of the war cabinet bothered to meet with the families to explain one thing: whether the ground operation endangers the wellbeing of the 229 hostages,” the Forum said in a statement.
“The families are worried about the fate of their loved ones and are waiting for an explanation. Every minute feels like an eternity.”
Sources told Al Jazeera on Friday that negotiations, mediated by Qatar, on a ceasefire and prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas had been “progressing and at an advanced stage”.
But Israel’s increased air and artillery attacks, severing of communications and ground incursion appear to have stymied the truce discussions.
Israel says Hamas killed 1,400 people, mainly civilians, when fighters stormed across the border on October 7.
More than 7,700 people have been killed in retaliatory Israeli strikes on Gaza, including about 3,500 children, according to its health ministry.