Reportage. We interviewed the loved ones and protesters seeking the return of the hostages. They’ve turned to various strategies for the same goal. A third has emerged: ceasefire.

Exchange, politics, siege: the three paths of the families of Israeli hostages

The signs are laid against a bench on Kaplan Street, in front of the permanent sit-in organized by the hostages’ families: they read “All for all today” and “Prisoner deal for Israel’s survival,” a slogan written in red marker that is visible above the others.

On this street in the heart of Tel Aviv, a few steps from the army headquarters, the family members of those kidnapped by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7 are refusing to give up. They have set up a tent, plastic chairs, packs of water bottles. One lady has brought a chocolate cake.

They have hung yellow cords (“Like the stars of the Shoah”) and origami butterflies from a nearby tree, bearing the names of some of the hostages. Their faces are everywhere: on walls, bus stops, power stations, street signs. Faces, names, ages and hashtags: #Bringthemhome, #HamasisIsis.

Traffic light poles are covered with stickers: Benyamin Netanyahu’s face with a bloodstained handprint over it, or with the word “Resign.” Someone tried to cover up that word with black paint: “supporters of the prime minister,” they tell us.

Among the stickers, we see a few watermelons popping up, with the slogan “Decolonize Palestine.” This fruit, which has the same colors as the Palestinian flag, has been an ill-disguised symbol of protest for years now.

The Kaplan Street protesters seem to have a clear strategy in mind for bringing home the 240 hostages – military and civilians, many elderly and children – still in the hands of Hamas: prisoner exchange. “My name is Leone, and I am here for Noa Argamani,” one of the protesters tells us. Noa Argamani is the young woman from a video that has been shared around the world, showing her kidnappers forcing her onto a motorcycle as she shouts for her boyfriend, Avinatan. “I’m taking care of her mother, she’s in the hospital,” Leone tells us. “We come here often. At 5:30 p.m. we pray together to send a message that we will not forget anyone.”

Leone talks about the exchange of Palestinian political detainees for hostages: “I’m not afraid to have them freed. We’ll send them back to Gaza, then we’ll figure out what to do.” A little further, Ruth is holding a sign with the face of her aunt, Ophelia Roitman, 77, who was kidnapped from the Nir Oz kibbutz: “She came from Argentina in ’95. They destroyed my uncle’s house and studio; he’s a painter. Only this Saturday did they give us confirmation that she was among the kidnapped.”

In Nir Oz, population 400, there was hardly any fighting. Kibbutz guards tried to stop the Hamas militiamen and managed to kill one of them. Israeli police arrived hours later. “We demand a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians: deal now,” Ruth says. “It’s 6,000 for 240 – we want them all back, soldiers and civilians,” adds her friend Dean. “Let’s give them back, then we’ll think about Gaza.”

Noa, next to the two girls, joins the conversation: “They can send them to a third country – the Palestinian prisoners. Not all of them have blood on their hands, many are in prison for other reasons.” The impression we get is of a conscious common purpose, matured during these weeks of anguish and abandonment: a negotiation. Then we’ll see. Gaza is hardly in the picture.

On the street parallel to Kaplan Street, there is another sit-in with a very different message. Relatives of the hostages are camped in front of the Museum of Art. Here the signs are different: “It says ‘Full blockade,’ total siege,” Boaz translates the message in Hebrew printed over the faces of some of the abducted children. He is here for his kidnapped brother Omri. “And it says, ‘No humanitarian assistance until release.’ How can we send them trucks of aid, food and medicine if they won’t negotiate?” he adds.

The solution is to starve Gaza, as “only then will they turn on Hamas,” interjects one of Boaz’s relatives. “From the government we demand total siege, pressure on the population, carpet bombing. They have to bomb as much as possible, exert military and humanitarian pressure. Hamas will become weaker and they will be forced to negotiate in earnest.”

“I say: You want water? Give me back my brother,” says Boaz curtly. He has come from the north, where he lives, and is here every day with the rest of his family. They do agree with the group on Kaplan Street on one thing: they want the head of Premier Netanyahu. “He gave our children over to Hamas,” says Boaz. “He has to resign, he is the only one responsible,” Noa told us. “I didn’t like him before, now I like him even less,” Dean added.

After three weeks, the fatigue is tangible, but so is the focus on what these families each see as their personal strategy. It is as if the front is divided, while still demanding the same thing.

There is also a third way, which was represented on Saturday in Tel Aviv at an impromptu and (according to the police) illegal protest: Israeli activists called for a ceasefire, period. No more bombs on Gaza because “mourning has no borders.” This is the third way – a political solution.

We hear about it from Lior Peri. Hamas killed his brother Dani and kidnapped his father Chaim. Dani was a British citizen, 34 years old, and had come to Nir Oz on vacation. They were supposed to meet that very Saturday. His 79-year-old father was kidnapped, but his mother avoided that fate.

Chaim managed to keep his cool: when the militiamen tried to enter the house, he hid his wife and came out with his hands up. They got him, but never found her. Lior learned that he was still alive from the two women freed on October 23, Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper: Chaim is fine, unharmed, they said.

“We prefer a political, long-term solution, not a military one. They have done that many times in the past and it didn’t work,” Lior tells us. “You can’t say you’re going to war for revenge, revenge is not a goal. The prime minister says Hamas will taste our wrath. You can’t say that this is the purpose of an operation. In meetings without journalists present, the defense minister is telling us, the family members, that we must win the war, we must break Hamas. It’s so frustrating.”

The priority, Lior insists, is freeing the hostages: “My father would not want us to send soldiers in to free him. Eleven have died already. Reacting with war is arrogant; it’s proof that the government doesn’t know what to do. It has shown us that it doesn’t know what to do, that it doesn’t understand anything about Hamas.”

One common front, many different perspectives. And one great blind spot: missing from the discourse and from the photos plastered on the walls of Tel Aviv are the hostages from the lowest classes, those who had already been forgotten in the first place.

“Not only kibbutz dwellers were kidnapped, but also Mizrahi Jews and exploited Thai and Nepalese workers,” historian Gadi Algazi tells us. “People from the lowest class, elderly people, Bedouins, all people who had already been forgotten by the state. The massacre is also terrible in terms of the social makeup of its targets: class and ethnicity also make a difference when suffering violence.”

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