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Vale of tears: Hostage Square brings crisis home

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Walking towards the place in Tel Aviv that has become known as Hostage Square on Saturday night, 22 June, I had a sinking feeling. Throngs of people holding signs and carrying Israeli flags were walking in the other direction. I thought I was too late for the weekly protest.

However, when I arrived at the huge square outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, I clearly wasn’t too late. Others had just had enough. Israelis in general have had enough of this devastation. Two hundred and fifty nine days (on Saturday night) after 7 October is just too long.

Nevertheless, I found more than 10 000 Israelis squeezed onto the square, so many with tears in their eyes as they listened to the family and friends of those still being held hostage in Gaza eight and a half months after being violently kidnapped and abducted across the border by marauding Hamas terrorists.

Witnessing the hollow eyes of their loved ones, their pain so evident, isn’t easy, but it’s a whole lot easier than what they are experiencing. The pain of the wait they speak about, not knowing what’s happening to their mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, grandchild, or best friends, is evident. They speak of not being able to sleep for eight months. They speak of their desperation and determination not to let the country forget about their loved ones.

They also speak of the hope that keeps them going from day to day, the hope that their loved ones will be rescued or somehow be brought home alive.

Former hostage Shani Goren from kibbutz Nir Oz, who had been abducted on 7 October and freed last November, spoke about her best friend, Arbel Yehud, whose 29th birthday was on 21 June.

“People ask me how I’m doing and if I’m managing to process what I’ve been through,” she told the thousands of people watching her. “The answer is I’m not.

“Every day I wake up I’m still being held hostage. Because until Arbel and everyone else returns home, we can’t begin to discuss rehabilitation and moving forward. I know. I was there.

“Bring her home! Bring them all home now!”

It was also Naama Levy’s 20th birthday on 22 June. Naama has also been held captive since 7 October. Few can forget the devastating video of a Hamas terrorist pulling her by her hair at gunpoint from the boot of a vehicle and throwing her into the back seat. Her hands were tied, her ankles appeared to be cut, and the back of her pants were soaked in blood.

Her parents, Dr Ayelet Levy Shachar and Yoni Levi, spoke to the crowds.

Her father wished Naama could see how many people had showed up at Hostage Square to celebrate her birthday.

Her distraught mother said, “I don’t want to make a speech, I just want to wish Naama a happy birthday, to speak to her. I hope she might hear. I hope these words reach her.

“I wish for you the most basic right that you deserve as a human, your freedom that was taken eight and half months ago.”

Her father said he remembered her laughter, could hear her voice, and described what they would have been doing if she had been with them that day. “We would have prepared a table full of sweets, balloons, and presents. Like always.”

It would have been such a happy day, he said. “Instead, you are there in darkness for 260 days. And we stand here.”

Yoni went on to say that 120 hostages couldn’t be returned through military action, only through a deal. He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognise that “victory in war isn’t just winning military battles and preserving the coalition at all costs”. It’s about “preserving the values of this nation” and “the ability to continue being faithful to our values as Jews and Israelis”.

The crowd was mostly wearing different “Bring them home” t-shirts, some with specific people they knew on them, with appropriate placards, some as straightforward as “Get them out of hell now!” There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. It’s hard not to try and imagine the pain of those incapable of doing anything other than waiting for their loved ones to come home, and the horror those still in Gaza are experiencing.

After the formal event ended, people milled around Hostage Square. Some conducted havdalah, singing and holding each aloft other with their spirit. One havdalah circle introduced a father of a hostage who told of his son, Matan Angrest, 21, and his desperate need to hold onto hope that he’s alive. He described his brave young man and called for all hostages to be returned.

Edan Alexander, 19, an American Israeli who moved to a kibbutz in Israel and to serve in the army, was a Golani, said his proud but devastated grandmother in the circle. She spoke of how he had been stationed on the Gaza border until 7 October.

Alongside this group was a tent dedicated to Shlomi Ziv, 41, who had been a security guard at the Nova festival and was taken hostage on that fateful Saturday. Ziv was rescued along with Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, and Andrey Kozlov on 6 June, eight months after being kidnapped.

In the tent, called “Don’t close your eyes”, visitors are able to get a slight sense of what the hostages are experiencing. With 3D glasses and headphones, I was ‘transported’ to a dark room in Gaza where I could hear the explosions going off all the time outside and sense the fear of the two hostages in the room. One was a woman with a tiny baby and the other a man who had been badly injured. The were watched over by a skittish Hamas guard, who was ready to stab the woman and baby to death every time the baby cried. Despite his injuries, the wounded man tried to calm him down and prevent more violence. They were on the floor, and you could sense the hopelessness of their situation but how they were holding on to life.

As the third person in the room, the guard spent time just glaring at me – the camera that videoed the scene – giving me a sense of the hatred he felt towards us.

The person volunteering for the family in the tent, who didn’t want to be named, asked that those who accessed their 3D experience go on to tell others about it. She asked that we made sure the world knew what the hostages were still experiencing and that they needed to be brought home. “This is what Shlomi and his family want. The world must know our people in Gaza aren’t being treated as humans,” she said.

The families of the hostages have been given an open refuge at the Beit Ariela Sha’ar Zion Library that overlooks the square. There, they can gather among themselves at any time of day, protected from the media, onlookers, and the world.

There are numerous heartbreaking reminders of the hostages at the square, including a makeshift Gazan tunnel so people can have insight into what being in them is like. There are photographs and artworks to keep the hostages front of mind for all who come to the square.

Saturday night’s gathering was just one of many protests around Israel, where tens of thousands were mostly calling for the end of the Netanyahu government, the return of the hostages, and demanding elections. In fact, there was a massive gathering at the nearby Kaplan Street, even bigger than Hostage Square, at the same time in Tel Aviv. Three people were arrested there in violent clashes with police. There were also other protests all around the country.

There were protests in Israel most nights last week, and there have been weekly anti-government protests since the war began on 7 October.

  • Peta Krost is the editor of the SA Jewish Report.

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