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Anger at Netanyahu cuts through a somber Tel Aviv rally to bring home the hostages

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

For more than seven months, every Saturday evening, the families of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 gather with supporters in a square in Tel Aviv demanding the return of their loved ones. It's part of the pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces from Israelis, and now from within his own government. NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi brings us this report from last night's rally, which was attended by a number of Western ambassadors and shadowed by an announcement that the Israeli military had just recovered a number of bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: The mood of the bring-them-home rally last night in Tel Aviv was somber even before the announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the last 24 hours, we received news that the IDF has recovered the bodies of four hostages - Amit Buskila, Itzik Gelernter, Shani Louk and just in the last hour, Ron Benjamin.

AL-SHALCHI: The Israel government said this week that three of the four hostage bodies recovered were killed at the Nova Music Festival on October 7 and then taken into Gaza.

MICHAEL LEVY: Each time we hear those horrible news, it kills you a bit more inside.

AL-SHALCHI: Michael Levy is wearing a T-shirt with his brother's face on it.

He looks very much like you.

LEVY: People keep saying it. I don't see it.

AL-SHALCHI: You don't think so?

LEVY: Thank you.

AL-SHALCHI: Levy's brother Or was taken from the Nova Music Festival, and he still doesn't know if his brother is alive. Levy says that the past seven months have been agony. Organizers on Saturday called this an international rally. The Austrian, German and British ambassadors to Israel all gave speeches calling on Hamas to release the hostages.

JACOB LEW: Good evening and (speaking non-English language).

AL-SHALCHI: U.S. Ambassador Jacob Lew spoke last.

LEW: We will not stop working every day to bring all the hostages home.

(APPLAUSE)

AL-SHALCHI: There was a recorded message from Hillary Clinton and talk show host Dr. Phil. Michael Levy says their appearances were important to him.

LEVY: For us, it's a lot. It means that we finally feel that the world is with us. And that's not how we felt in the past seven months.

AL-SHALCHI: As Israelis call on the international community to step up, there is frustration at their own government for not doing enough to bring the remaining 128 hostages home.

JONATHAN DEKEL-CHEN: Honestly, I don't know if my son is alive.

AL-SHALCHI: Jonathan Dekel-Chen helped organize the rally. His son, Sagui Dekel-Chen, was taken from their kibbutz on October 7.

DEKEL-CHEN: He's the father of three little girls, the youngest of which he has never met. She was born in mid-December.

AL-SHALCHI: Dekel-Chen says he isn't exactly happy with his government's performance, that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not prioritizing the return of the hostages, and he says he's horrified by the loss of life in Gaza.

DEKEL-CHEN: It doesn't matter how hard we pound Hamas. They deserve to be pounded, no doubt. But unless the hostages are returned, there's no victory for us.

AL-SHALCHI: Dekel-Chen says the Israeli people would no longer support the war if the hostages are returned. Netanyahu is coming under increasing pressure by the hostage families and the wider Israel public to bring the hostages home. Tens of thousands of protesters have recently taken to the streets, demanding that he step down. Within his own government, the war cabinet's Benny Gantz gave Netanyahu an ultimatum on Saturday - come up with a plan for the future of the war in Gaza, or he quits. And many blame Netanyahu for the stalled negotiations with Hamas.

GAYA HULLER: I don't think he wants a deal.

AL-SHALCHI: At the rally, Gaya Huller speaks bitterly of the failure to bring the hostages home.

HULLER: I don't think he supports any of the families, any of the hostages. He's to blame for all that, basically, for me.

AL-SHALCHI: A few blocks away, there's another loud protest. They've also been rallying for months, angrily calling for new elections and for Netanyahu to resign.

MOR ZURIN: We're calling for elections now. We need to - I don't know what the word is. Take down the government, but in a peaceful and democratic way.

AL-SHALCHI: Mor Zurin attended both rallies and is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with stickers reading, peace is the only way.

ZURIN: I think we already lost. Everyone lost. We lost. The Palestinians lost. We just keep losing every day. People continue to die.

AL-SHALCHI: Zurin says that the war, which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, is not the answer to bringing the hostages home and that anyone would be better than Netanyahu.

ZURIN: He's not doing almost anything. All he cares about is his seat and definitely does not care about - not about the people of Israel, not about the people who are kidnapped.

AL-SHALCHI: The demonstrators will be here again next week, and with the thousands of people rallying and key leaders within the government openly criticizing Netanyahu, his leadership faces its most serious challenge in nearly eight months of war.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.