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'In the spirit of Purim, we unite for miracles' – Israelis rally for hostage release on eve of holiday

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Defense Headquarters, in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Photo: Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Thousands took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the weekly Saturday night demonstrations, this time intertwining their calls for government action and a hostage deal with themes of the Purim holiday, which began that evening.

The rallies coincided with the advance of negotiations in Qatar between Israel and Hamas for a ceasefire to the war and the release of the 134 hostages in Gaza, where Hamas terrorists have been holding the captives, including the bodies of the deceased, since the Oct. 7 attack.

Speakers at both of the large protests continued to press the Israeli government to close a deal with the Hamas terrorist organization quickly.

In Tel Aviv, at the plaza now dubbed Hostages Square, Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of Shoham and head of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, drew parallels between the Israeli hostages held in Gaza and Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, as read in the four chapters of the Book of Esther.

She "was a queen, but really she was a hostage in the palace of [Persia’s King] Ahasuerus," Rabbi Stav said.

After learning that the king's advisor Haman had devised a plot to kill the Jews of Persia, Esther asks her Uncle Mordechai "to pray and fast for her,” he added, reminding the crowd of protesters that just like Jews survived and saw the downfall of their enemies, Purim reveals that "this is holiday capable of miracles – if we pray and if we unite.”

The sentiment of hope and unity was echoed by Nadav Rudaeff, whose father, 61-year-old Lior, was abducted by Hamas terrorists from the Nir Yitzhak community on Oct. 7. Reflecting on Purim's significance in his family, he emphasized, "Just as rescuing the Jewish people was in Esther’s hands, rescuing the hostages now is in our hands, and the hands of our leadership."

At the hostage protest in Jerusalem, Jon Goldberg-Polin, the father of Hersh who was kidnapped from the Nova Music Festival by terrorists on Oct. 7, said “There is nothing more fitting than Purim to describe the critical moment we are in.”

“I stand here with hope that we will also be able to flip the dice that were cast, to change their outcome and to see our beloved hostages returned to their homes,” he said, in a reference to the Hebrew word purim, which means “lots” or “dice.”

Tom Barkai, organizer of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in Jerusalem, underscored the incompleteness of celebrations without the hostages' return.

“No holiday will ever be a real holiday without the return of all the hostages,” said Barkai.

Outside of the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, anti-government protesters called for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized the government for not taking responsibility for Oct. 7 and called for early elections.

Many attendees wore shirts calling for the immediate dismissal of Netanyahu and the release of hostages. Some of the shirts represented various protest groups from weekly judicial reform demonstrations last year.

Yael Engel Lichi, Ofir Engel's aunt, who was briefly held by Hamas, and Dr. Opher Havakuk, a reserve doctor in Gaza, both voiced their frustrations with the current leadership's responsibilities and decisiveness.

“As a doctor, I’m required to take responsibility for my actions and to be decisive,” Havakuk said. “I mention this because these qualities are missing from our government.”

Ami Dror, a high-tech entrepreneur and one of the leaders of the “Elections Now” movement, lauded the protesters before him as “heroes who went to war with a government of cowards.”

The leader of the “Elections Now” movement and high-tech entrepreneur, Ami Dror, praised the demonstrators as "heroes who went to war with a government of cowards."

Former Israeli cabinet minister Izhar Shay lost his son Yaron, who was killed while fighting terrorists on Oct. 7. He showed his willingness to support the government in making a difficult compromise if it meant the hostages' return.

"Capital punishment would be a relatively light sentence" for the terrorists, he admitted, "But if we need to return the human scum who murdered you… we will give backing to the ministers and the prime minister to make a painful decision.”

The protests also saw clashes with law enforcement as participants sought to disrupt traffic in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, drawing police to intervene to maintain order and prevent the protesters from blocking traffic on major Israeli highways on the holiday evening. In some neighborhoods, protesters blocked off roads and lit bonfires in the middle of the street.

Demonstrators persisted in calls for U.S. intervention to pressure Netanyahu to close a hostage release deal; they could be heard, calling: “SOS USA” and “Help, help, we need your help.”

Some chanted a slogan at the prime minister and his wife: “Bibi, Sara, thanks for all the s**t,” calling attention to an alleged complaint by Sara Netanyahu, suggesting that the released hostages lacked gratitude.

As the confrontations became more aggressive, protesters interfered with Fire and Rescue Services that showed up to extinguish the bonfires and began pulling on the fire hoses. Local police officers attempted to forcibly disperse them.

Protesters continued their attempts to block major highways until a police commander declared the protest illegal and permitted officers to use force to remove those who persisted in disrupting traffic.

Other demonstrators showed up at Israeli ministers' homes, calling on lawmakers to take direction action. One group could be seen outside of Knesset Member Gideon Sa'ar's apartment complex, urging the legislator to prevent far-right Israeli leaders – National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – from joining the war cabinet. Ten protesters were arrested, according to Tel Aviv police.

In Jerusalem, about 12 people, including Mai Alvini-Peri, the grandson of Hamas-held hostage Haim Peri. attempted to block the road outside of the Prime Minister's Residence.

They chanted in megaphones that there is no return to "routine" without the return of hostages and demanded their release. While the commitment to the hostage cause continued, demonstrators complied with authorities shortly after.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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