At a small Tel Aviv protest ahead of the Israel-Hamas hostage deal, families feel hope and uncertainty
Relatives of hostages and others rally for a prisoner swap in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023. (Photo: Eliyahu Freedman)

By Eliyahu Freedman
November 21, 2023

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Wearing a face that bore the marks of 47 days of anguished waiting, Hadas Kalderon took to the streets to block traffic on a central Tel Aviv thoroughfare next to Israel’s military headquarters. 

Kalderon was demanding that Israel’s leaders, who were meeting in the complex, approve a deal to release at least 50 of the hostages held by Hamas — including, possibly, her son and daughter. 

“We want them all back, I will fight to the end until everyone comes back,” said Kalderon, whose 16-year-old daughter Sahar, 12-year-old son Erez and their father — her ex-husband, Ofer — were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7. They are among the approximately 240 hostages held by Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, abducted during the attack that day.

The deal set to be approved by Israel’s government on Tuesday will free at least 50 Israeli hostages — among them women, children and the elderly — in exchange for some 150 Palestinian women and minors in Israeli prison on security offenses. Israel has also agreed to a four-day pause in its war against Hamas in Gaza. 

Kalderon understood that this hostage deal won’t bring the entire family home. But she sees it as a crucial first step.

“The father of my children is there, I want my children to have a father but we have to live in reality,” she said of the proposed deal, which will reportedly exclude men and soldiers. “At first we must take out the weak. Babies, children and elderly will not survive. And then it will be open to bring them all.”

Compared to recent protests that brought tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets, and even a march from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem last week that drew many supporters to call for freeing the hostages, only a small group of approximately 100 Israelis gathered Tuesday night to call for the hostage deal’s approval. In spite of the small crowd blocking the busy Begin Boulevard, police made no effort to disperse the crowd and even some of the stranded motorists showed little of the frustration they have displayed about previous protests. 

“It is good that they are doing this,” said a driver of a stalled Egged bus. Referring to a massive protest movement that spread across Israel for much of the year prior to Oct. 7, he said, “It is not like the judicial reforms. These are Israeli citizens captive in Gaza, it is much more important.” 

Despite the milestone deal, there were few signs of celebration in light of the deal’s fraught implications for those not included.

“The deal is not simple,” said Shir Sella, a 24-year-old cousin of the Kalderon family. “We are very worried that it will make it harder to release the men and it is a question of what we are giving up. … I feel like the government betrayed us by not protecting us.”

Concerns have also simmered over what kinds of dangers a multi-day pause in fighting might pose to Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza; Israeli officials have said the soldiers would remain in place during the truce. Soldiers who are being held hostage are also not being released.

“As a mother of a soldier in captivity, I would be terrified,” said Michal Roth, whose son is serving in Gaza as a soldier.  

“It is such an unhuman dilemma that we are in and I think that Hamas is trying to tear us apart with this deal,” Roth added. “But there is no win-win and even with my own child in Gaza, as a mother my thoughts are with the kids held captive and not him.”

On the other side of the road, a small group of counter-protesters gathered to express opposition to the hostage deal, a view mainly reflected by the far-right political parties in Israel’s parliament who vowed to vote against the deal. Limor Son Har-Melech, a right-wing member of Knesset from Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, stood at a distance from both protests.

“It pains me to see the split,” she said. “I have good relations with families on the other side calling for a deal but I think it is a very dangerous deal for us.”

Son Har-Melech was badly injured while pregnant in a terrorist attack in 2003 that killed her first husband, Shuli Har-Melech. Terrorists who carried out that attack were among about 1,000 Palestinians released from Israeli prisons in 2011 as part of a deal with Hamas to free the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, she said. 

“We do not learn from history — we need to learn from the Shalit deal,” Son Har-Melech said, noting that current Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was also released at the time.

“Hamas is abusing our weaknesses and there would be a better chance to return them all if we showed strength,” she said, adding that “if we do not have unity we lose anyways.”

Atara Levy, an activist with Women Wage Peace, came to the protest to show solidarity for her friend Netta Heiman, whose 84-year old mother Ditza was taken captive from Kibbutz Nir Oz. (Vivan Silver, one of the group’s cofounders, was murdered on Oct. 7 in her home on Kibbutz Be’eri. She had been thought to be one of the captives until her body was discovered.)

“We need a diplomatic solution and there is no choice but to accept the deal,” Levy said. “I am not sure if this is a step towards peace, but it is definitely a step in the right direction for the nation to survive, because a state that cannot return its captives has no legitimacy.”While Levy does not have much hope for the country’s leadership, tomorrow she will join a zoom meeting with “hundreds” of Palestinian women from the West Bank and Gaza who want peace and “are supporting us, that we are one.”

Efrat, a protester from Tel Aviv who declined to share her last name, said that she feels “horrible” about the deal — because of how much pain and uncertainty remains.

“Even if 50 are brought home, there are still more than 150 left behind,” she said. “I do not feel like I can be okay as a citizen of Israel or as a human being without them all home.” 

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