Yoav Peled says he has started wondering if the world has gone mad.
Sitting outside the Kirya, Israel’s equivalent of the Pentagon in Tel Aviv, Peled was cutting pieces of yellow ribbon off a large wheel last Thursday, handing them out to strangers passing by. The bands symbolize solidarity with the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
It is this solidarity – and specifically whether it still extends beyond Israel’s borders – that Peled was questioning.
As global leaders continue to pile pressure on Israel over the mounting civilian death toll from its bombardment of Gaza and huge crowds gather for pro-Palestinian protests in cities like London, Washington DC, Berlin, Paris, Amman and Cairo – almost all in support of civilians in Gaza, rather than Hamas – many Israelis are getting frustrated with what they see as unequal treatment.
It’s a feeling that cuts across the deep divisions within Israeli society: the world does not understand us.
A teacher at a religious school for girls, Itzahak brought some of her students to the little plaza outside the Kirya where Peled was handing out the ribbons. The spot has become a gathering place for the victims’ families, their supporters, and well-wishers after the October 7 terror attacks.
Missing people posters and photographs of the victims are displayed on the wall of the government complex, a seemingly never-ending row of smiling faces of men, women, children, babies, soldiers, and, at times, entire families.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said more than 1,400 people were murdered in the attacks. About 240 people were kidnapped and are believed to be held by Hamas and others in Gaza. Four women – two Americans and two Israelis – have been released, while one soldier has been rescued by the IDF.
“I think any country in the world that would find itself in our situation would probably do much, much more and no one would say anything. It’s just the Jews. Because the Jews are not entitled to live in a country in peace. That’s what we want. And I’m sorry, but no one understands it,” Itzahak said.
Anger against Netanyahu
There is a lot of love outside the Kirya complex. Some people come here to pray, hug each other, and spend time together. The group of students brought by Itzahak came with dozens of freshly baked loaves of bread, a powerful and deeply meaningful gesture in Judaism.
But there’s also a lot of anger and frustration. Most of it is aimed squarely at Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Two shifts a day. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” he said, holding a sign depicting Netanyahu and other members of his government in jail.
Like many in Israel, Zweig is placing some of the blame for the brutal October 7 Hamas attack on Netanyahu. “We should have taken down Hamas a long time ago, but instead Netanyahu started allowing Qatari money in,” he said referencing Netanyahu’s decision to allow Qatar to transfer millions of dollars to Hamas-run Gaza in 2018.
“You’re not going to change a terror organization’s agenda with money. Now, the price of taking them down will be much higher,” Zweig said.
It’s been a month since the attack and Ruby Chen still has had no news about his son, Itay. The second of three sons, a former Boy Scout, and a fierce basketball player, Itay was kidnapped on October 7.
On Saturday night, Chen and hundreds of other family members of the hostages gathered outside the Kirya to demand “greater actions by the government.”
They pitched up tents in the plaza, vowing to stay until their children, siblings, parents, grandparents, and other loved ones were released.
The organizers of the event said it was not “an anti-government protest,” but their frustration was clear.
In the early days after the Hamas terror attack, many of the hostages’ families were reluctant to criticize the government of Netanyahu. That has now changed.
A strongly worded statement issued by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum last week spoke of the “enormous anger” that the government was not speaking to them about the operation in Gaza.
A tense meeting between Netanyahu and some of the families, led to further heated exchanges, including a demand that the government should consider an “everyone for every one deal” floated by Hamas in a statement the terror group issued last week.
Such a deal would involve exchanging the hostages for Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons – some 6,630 people, according to estimates by the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society.
It would be highly controversial because many of the prisoners have been either convicted or held on charges or suspicions related to acts of terrorism.
The IDF dismissed the Hamas offer as a tool of “psychological terror aimed to manipulate Israeli civilians.”
In October 2011, Israel agreed to exchange Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists who went on to carry out further attacks. Yahya Sinwar, who heads Hamas in Gaza and was identified by the IDF as one of the masterminds behind the October 7 attacks, was one of those released in the deal.
Chen said he still believes the government should do everything it can to secure the release of the hostages. “I’m not in a position to understand the dynamics. At the end of the day, we look at the end results … I still don’t know if my kid is dead or alive. That’s the bottom line,” he added.
The families have said that no ceasefire should be agreed until all the hostages are released.
And the country is behind them. Anger about the government’s response to the crisis is mounting even among some of the people who have previously supported Netanyahu and his government.
“I voted for someone else, but I think he has done wonderful things for Israel, he was a soldier, he was a courageous soldier, but he has been the prime minister for 15 years, so he is to blame. And he has to go. I think everybody knows this and he knows it as well,” Itzahak said.
Support for Netanyahu and his government has collapsed, with the latest polling conducted by Tel Aviv University for Israeli media showing the vast majority of Israelis want Netanyahu to quit.
But while the government’s approval ratings are nose-diving, the decision to launch a war on Hamas has firm backing from most Jewish Israelis – despite the strong international criticism.
And while most of Israel’s Arab and Palestinian citizens, and a small minority of Jews, don’t approve of the war, a wide-ranging crackdown on freedom of speech means that any form of dissent against the war is risky.
Dozens of Palestinian residents and citizens of Israel have been arrested in Israel for expressing solidarity with Gaza and its civilian population. Israel Police said that as of October 25, it had arrested 110 people since the start of the war for allegedly inciting violence and terrorism, mostly on social media. Of these arrests, 17 resulted in indictments.
Public displays of solidarity with Gaza or criticism of Israel’s military response are few and far between. Demonstrations against the war have been banned and more than 100 people have been arrested for posting messages of solidarity with Gaza on social media.
‘Very fine line’ in criticizing Israel
A musician who recently finished his compulsory military service with the Israeli Navy – including stints patrolling around the Gaza Strip – Rapaport said he, too, was getting frustrated with the world’s reaction to the events in Gaza.
“When people ask, ‘why are you taking Gaza?’ what I don’t understand is – do we not have the right to protect our civilians and soldiers? What is a proportionate response? We try not to kill civilians,” he said.
“This conflict (between Israel and the Palestinians) isn’t black and white, but this war (with Hamas) is,” he added. “There’s very valid criticism of the Israeli government and Israel, but there’s a very fine line that has been crossed in a lot of these conversations between criticizing Israel and hating Jews. You can criticize Israel occupying the West Bank or Gaza, but you can’t say oh, so because of that it’s okay to kill 1,400 civilians.”
Rapaport said he had criticized Netanyahu’s government before the war, opposing his plans to reform the judicial system – a major fault line that has split the country.
“After the war, I think the whole government should go. But now… we are at war. I don’t trust Netanyahu as a person, but I have to trust him as a leader,” he said.
Later that night, Rapaport joined a large circle of musicians and mostly young people sitting at Zion Square. They were playing guitars and singing classic Israeli hits.
The songs ranged from sad to hopeful. Among them, “Lu Yehi,” a song inspired by the Beatles’ song “Let It Be.” The ballad was written by Naomi Shemer in 1973, during the first days of the Yom Kippur War, and has since become synonymous with that war and hope for Israel’s victory.
On Thursday night, the song’s words rang out in Zion Square, almost exactly 50 years since its debut and with Israel once more at war.