Israeli hostage families march on Jerusalem to keep focus on captives - and peace

Hundreds join procession from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem amid fears hostages in Gaza are being forgotten

Demonstrators walk along a motorway demanding the return of hostages taken from Israel into Gaza on October 7. Thomas Helm / The National
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Although Yuval Haran walks through the outskirts of the Israeli city of Ramla shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of fellow demonstrators, the 36-year-old computer repairman still feels alone.

Ten of his family members were in Kibbutz Be’eri next to the Gaza border on October 7 when Hamas stormed into Israel, killing at least 1,200 people – down from an initial estimate of 1,400 – most of them civilians, and kidnapping about 240 others.

Seven of Yuval’s family who were in Be'eri are presumed to have been taken hostage. The remaining three are dead.

“Ever since then it’s been a nightmare of worry and pain,” he says. “I’m still living like I was on October 7 – this nightmare isn’t over.”

He is interrupted at points by the din of Ramla’s industrial outskirts. Lorries hurtle by beeping in support of the crowd that set out in a 70km protest march from Tel Aviv for Jerusalem on Tuesday. A freight train does the same a short while later.

“I don’t like walking and I certainly don’t enjoy it now, but I need to do everything I can to bring them back,” he says, trudging along at the front of the group holding a sign bearing an image of one his of his relatives.

“I want the entire world to know about this. I want them to know that my three-year-old niece and my 67-year-old mother are in Gaza.”

Yuval is part of the advocacy group Bring Them Home Now. It was established within days of October 7 and has since launched numerous eye-catching campaigns and built a formidable media machine with the goal of keeping the Israeli hostages near the top of the international news agenda.

Many in the crowd fear the captives' plight is slipping out of the headlines as Israel continues its punishing and bloody Gaza offensive to destroy Hamas.

Gaza's Health Ministry say more than 11,400 people have died, a rapidly increasing number that has sparked mass protests across the world in solidarity with Palestinians and mounting criticism of Israel from the international community.

Despite rage in Israel and general support from the public for the military's brutal operation, several people in the crowd marching through Ramla spoke of their desire for peace.

Computer scientist David Gordon, 22, says October 7 was so damaging because “not only did we experience the loss of a lot of people, but we also felt the concept of peace get hurt”.

“As a nation we’re in survival mode, so it seems peace is not driving us,” he adds.

“Right now, safety is a stronger desire than peace, but I wish peace would be possible and I still want to believe in it.”

David says the “beauty” of the march is that it is “bigger than all of us”. In a country of only 9.3 million people, he says everyone in Israel is connected to the hostages.

“I have a friend who was kidnapped, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who I met around 10 years ago at a summer camp,” David explains.

“He was so energetic. He always made the mood better. When I heard about what happened to him, it made my heart hurt. He is one of the good guys.

“They posted a lot of pictures of his bedroom in the aftermath. It was full of posters about peace, love and rejection of violence.”

David’s wife, Tiferet Gordon, 23, who works with special needs children, has friends who were killed.

“I think this is the first tragedy in Israel that’s felt so close to everyone in society,” she says. “We’re showing the families that we’re all in this cause together.”

The Bring Them Home Now campaign has a domestic purpose, too.

Despite overwhelming unity in Israel as it pursues Hamas in Gaza, there is mounting anger at the government’s approach to rescuing hostages.

The march will end in Jerusalem, near the prime ministerial office. The protesters will be demanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now one of the most unpopular politicians in Israeli history, do more to get the hostages out.

The government says it is doing all it can. That has not placated the demonstrators, who know a statement such as that does not necessarily mean releasing the captives is the priority.

Mr Netanyahu, his ministers and the army keep saying there are two objectives of the operation in Gaza: rescuing hostages and the total eradication of Hamas.

However, if Israel keeps using such brutal force in its campaign to achieve the latter, it will be harder to ensure the safety of the hostages, who will also be in grave danger in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

It is a dilemma the marchers acknowledge with great pain.

“The hostages are in the most danger now, but if Hamas stays we’ll be in danger forever,” David says. “It’s very hard to say which is more important and I don’t think they necessarily contradict each other.”

For Yuval, in all his grief the debate is far simpler.

“I don’t have politics right now,” he says. “Ever since October 7, all I care about is bringing them [the hostages] back. I’m not even thinking about it politically.

“I want to go back to Be’eri. It has always been my quiet, pastoral home. I hope we can rebuild. Bringing the hostages back is part of it.”

Updated: November 16, 2023, 4:17 PM