By Altaf Moti
Israel is facing a hostage crisis and a war with Hamas, which have sparked anti-government demonstrations and political turmoil in the country. Here are some of the key facts and developments that you need to know about this complex and ongoing situation.
On October 7, 2023, a group of armed men belonging to Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, abducted at least 150 Israeli civilians from a music festival and nearby areas in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza. The number of hostages may be higher as some sources report more than 220 hostages taken to Gaza. The exact number of kidnapped civilians is still unknown, as the situation is ongoing and chaotic. The hostages included men and women of various ages and backgrounds. They were taken by surprise and forced into vehicles, which then drove into Gaza through underground tunnels.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and said that it was a response to Israel’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Palestinian lands. Hamas also said that it would use the hostages as a bargaining chip and a leverage in the ongoing war with Israel.
Hamas demanded that Israel should stop its attacks on Gaza and release thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages. Hamas also claimed that 50 hostages have been killed in Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza.
Israel rejected Hamas’ demands and said that it would not negotiate with terrorists. Israel also vowed to do everything possible to locate and rescue the hostages and to hold Hamas accountable for its actions.
Israel offered money to Gaza residents in exchange for information on the location of the hostages, but not to Hamas directly. Israel also assured the Gaza residents of confidentiality and protection if they shared credible and useful information about the hostages being held in their area.
The Protest Demonstrations
The hostage crisis caused outrage and grief among the families and friends of the hostages who accused the government of failing to protect their loved ones and of being responsible for their deaths.
Hundreds of Israelis have been protesting inside and outside their country against the failure of Prime Minister Benjamin Natenyaho and his government to secure the release of more than 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. The protesters demand an end to the war and a diplomatic solution to the hostage crisis, which has been ongoing since October 7, 2023. The protesters accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Natenyaho and his government of failing to protect the civilians and soldiers who were kidnapped during Hamas’ unprecedented incursion into Israel on October 7, 2023.
According to the Israeli military, at least 224 people are being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but the number could be higher. Four hostages have been released so far, two women on October 23 and two US citizens on October 20. The hostages include 20 children and between 10 and 20 over-60s. Some of the hostages are alive and some are presumed dead, military spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said.
The hostage crisis has triggered widespread anger and frustration among Israelis, who have taken to the streets in various cities across Israel and around the world to voice their outrage and demand action from their government. Some of the slogans chanted by the protesters include “Free our hostages”, “Natenyaho, resign”, “Stop the war, save lives”, and “Hamas is a terrorist organization”.
The protests have been organized by various groups, such as the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which represents the relatives of the hostages; Peace Now, which advocates for a peaceful resolution of the conflict; and Breaking the Silence, which exposes human rights violations by the Israeli military in the occupied territories. The protesters have also received support from some Israeli politicians, celebrities, and activists, who have joined them in solidarity.
The protesters have also faced opposition and violence from some pro-government and pro-war groups, who accuse them of being traitors, cowards, or Hamas sympathizers. Some of these groups have attacked the protesters with stones, eggs, or pepper spray, or have tried to disrupt their rallies with loud music or counter-demonstrations. The police have intervened in some cases to prevent clashes or to disperse illegal gatherings.
The protests have also attracted international attention and media coverage as they reflect the deep divisions and tensions within Israeli society over the war and its consequences. These Israeli demonstrators have also held rallies, marches, and demonstrations in various cities such as London, Geneva, Berlin, Paris, and New York, where they waved Israeli flags, held up photos of the hostages, sang the Israeli national anthem, and denounced Hamas as a terrorist group. They have also urged the international community to intervene and help end the crisis.
Some foreign governments and organizations have expressed their support for the protesters and their calls for a ceasefire and a humanitarian intervention to free the hostages. Others have criticized them for being naive, unrealistic or undermining Israel’s security and sovereignty.
The protesters say they will not give up until their loved ones are returned home safely or their fate is confirmed. They also hope that their actions will pressure their government to pursue a diplomatic solution to end the conflict and prevent further bloodshed and suffering.
The demonstrations have been taking place in various cities across Israel, such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba. Some of them have been peaceful, while others have turned violent and clashed with pro-Israel supporters and police forces.
The War with Hamas
The war with Hamas is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of a long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group. The war escalated in May 2021, when Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities, triggering a massive Israeli retaliation that killed more than 250 people in Gaza.
The war resumed in October 2023, after a brief period of relative calm. The trigger was the hostage-taking by Hamas due to the Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Israel launched a massive military campaign want to destroy Hamas’ terrorist capabilities, including its tunnel network, which it said posed a serious threat to its security and sovereignty.
Israel also said that its main objective was to rescue the hostages who were taken by Hamas from a music festival in southern Israel on October 7, 2023. Israel said that it believed that the hostages were being held in secret locations inside Gaza, and that it was working with intelligence agencies and international partners to find and free them.
Israel used its air force, navy, artillery and special forces to target Hamas’ infrastructure, weapons, leaders, and operatives in Gaza. Israel also deployed thousands of troops along the border with Gaza ready to launch a ground offensive if necessary.
Hamas resisted Israel’s attacks and continued to fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities, causing casualties, damage, and panic among the Israeli population. Hamas also used its tunnel network to infiltrate into Israel and carry out attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The Political Turmoil
The hostage crisis and the war with Hamas also triggered political turmoil in Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced criticism and pressure from his political rivals and opponents, his allies and coalition partners, the international community and human rights groups and the families and friends of the hostages for his handling of the crisis and the war.
Netanyahu was accused of being incompetent, corrupt and a murderer for his handling of the hostage crisis and the ongoing war with Hamas. He was also criticized by some families of the hostages for not communicating with them, not listening to their demands and not taking enough action to secure their release.
Netanyahu was also challenged by his political rivals and opponents who called for his resignation or a new election. Netanyahu also faced pressure from the international community and human rights groups who urged him to end the war and negotiate with Hamas for a prisoner swap. They also condemned Israel’s use of disproportionate force and its violation of international law and humanitarian norms in Gaza.