Protesters sit at a protest tent in Tel Aviv erected to draw attention to the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Freedman)
Protesters sit at a protest tent in Tel Aviv erected to draw attention to the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Freedman)

Protest tents spring up in Tel Aviv to push for hostages’ return

TEL AVIV (JTA) — For most of this year, Kaplan Street in the center of this city was known as the site of mass protests. Slogans and signs lined the avenue and, every Saturday night, tens or hundreds of thousands of Israelis would gather to demonstrate against the government.

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, in which thousands were killed and wounded, and hundreds taken captive, those protests have ceased. But another one, smaller, more somber and subdued, has taken their place.

This new protest also opposes the government, but instead of calling for a change to the legislative agenda, it’s demanding that Israel’s leaders do more to free the over 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. It is centered on two makeshift encampments on each side of the Kirya, Israel’s central military base and the seat of the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces. Dozens of protesters, including relatives of the hostages, stay there from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. to push for the captives’ return.

“We are here opposite the people who need to release them,” said Itzik, 73, a history teacher who declined to share his full name and had been coming to Kaplan for a few days. He is a family friend of Liri Albag, an 18-year old soldier who was taken captive while on duty at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border.

“I do not have the strength to volunteer with all the physical efforts,” Itzik said. “But here I am able to give something by strengthening the families with my presence.”

In the wake of the massacre, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly unpopular, with a recent poll showing that most Israelis want him to resign after the war. But following Oct. 7 and Israel’s ensuing war against Hamas in Gaza, Israelis have also described a newfound unity of purpose following years of deepening political divisions.

The protest on Kaplan is something of an exception: Some participants call on Netanyahu to resign now, not later, and get into shouting matches with his supporters. Others are less focused on the prime minister and hope to maintain a nonpartisan call for the release of the hostages, including calling for negotiations toward their freedom, possibly as part of a prisoner exchange.

“Bibi and his gang need to go,” said Miri Lahat, 73, who was at an anti-Netanyahu demonstration on Kaplan on Sunday and has been protesting against him for seven years. “The government betrayed us twice … by getting us into this situation and failing to release the hostages.”

Hundreds of posters line the busy street in Hebrew and English, similar to the ones now wallpapering major cities across the United States. They display the word “Kidnapped” in all capital letters along with the name and photo of a hostage, and some biographical details. Several signs read, “Free the hostages now!”

Other initiatives across Israel also aim to draw attention to the hostages. Just blocks away from the tents, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a Shabbat table with 200 empty chairs symbolized the captive Israelis. Israeli tech workers have organized to help identify their missing fellow citizens. Family members of the hostages have held press conferences and met with the country’s leaders and other heads of state.

Itzik is one of dozens of volunteers who came to Kaplan to support the families of the hostages, in addition to hundreds of visitors who stopped by to tie yellow ribbons on their arms — an international symbol for the return of hostages. Countless cars honked to show support throughout the day.

A protester in Tel Aviv calling for a prisoner exchange. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Freedman)
A protester in Tel Aviv calling for a prisoner exchange. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Freedman)

Setting up a protest tent is something of a tradition in Israeli activism. The parents of Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, set up a tent opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and stayed there for 15 months until their son was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2011. That same year, Israelis camped out on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest of the country’s high cost of living. This year, opponents of Netayahu’s effort to weaken the judiciary briefly camped out near the country’s parliament in Jerusalem.

Dafna Sheer, a 70-year old Israeli living in Hofit, a coastal town about 25 miles north of the protest tents, said she came to Kaplan on Sunday because she is “heartbroken” by the thought that “it could have been my grandchild” who was taken captive. She also blames Netanyahu for the recent disaster and current response. “He must resign,” she said bluntly.

One of the protesters holding a sign opposite passersby was Tamar Bialik, 49, a Tel Aviv resident and member of Israel’s trance music community, which was devastated by a Hamas massacre at a rave near the Gaza border on Oct. 7. She said she went from “shiva to shiva” before arriving at the Kaplan tent to advocate for two friends who were abducted by Hamas terrorists at the music festival.

Ilan Avraham, 56, was like a father for the Israeli trance community,” she said. “Since he was 16, he would go to trance parties every week while Moran Stela [Yanai] just had a jewelry shop at the Nova festival.”

She added that the country’s trance community has a history rooted in trauma. It blossomed, she said, to reflect “true love” after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

“Going to many shivas is the first time I learned where my friends live and what they do,” she said. “These details are not relevant for the trance community, which is about complete freedom.”

A group of visitors last week represented Israel’s Masorti movement, the country’s version of Conservative Judaism, and included several American rabbis who led prayers at the site. Since their visit, the 5 p.m. afternoon prayer service has become a part of the daily ritual at the camp.

“Last Tuesday, I was invited to come be with the Masorti movement, to come here and listen to people,” said Israeli-American Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who leads Lab/Shul in New York and was part of the group that visited on Tuesday. “We created a circle and sang songs and did a prayer for the healing and captives — then we invited anyone who wanted to do Mincha to join.”

The prayer service was one stop on Lau-Lavie’s extended trip around the country to provide pastoral care for traumatized Israelis, including a visit to a hotel where members of his own family have relocated after their kibbutz was attacked on Oct. 7.

As painful as the current moment is, Lau-Lavie said Jews throughout history have joined together to call for the return of captives.

“People need to stand together and in the absence of words, or singing, people need to know that they are not alone” he said. “The fact that we have in our archive a 2,000-year-old prayer for the release of captives shows that we have been here before.”

Eliyahu Freedman

JTA correspondent