Recently released hostages and relatives of Israelis still held by Hamas in Gaza have confronted Benjamin Netanyahu at an angry meeting in which some of those present reportedly called on the Israeli prime minister to resign.
The meeting on Tuesday was addressed by relatives of those still in captivity and by recently returned hostages, some of whom reportedly described mental and physical abuse at the hands of their captors.
Reuven Yablonka, whose son Hanan Yablonka is still being held by Hamas, told the Hebrew daily Maariv that “there was chaos and yelling,” at the meeting in which some representatives of the hostage families are said to have walked out as Netanyahu read from pre-prepared remarks.
“They shouted that they want all the hostages to come home. The female captives talked about unpleasant things that happened to them,” he said.
By the latest count, 138 Israelis and other nationals are still being held by Hamas in Gaza even as Israel has expanded its ground offensive into Gaza’s south, targeting the southern city of Khan Younis.
During a week-long ceasefire that expired on Friday, 105 civilians were freed from Hamas captivity in Gaza – including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino – in return for the release of 240 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli jails.
What was described as leaked audio from Tuesday’s meeting appeared to record Netanyahu saying that it had not been possible to free all the hostages in a single deal.
“I’m telling you the facts, I respect you too much. We couldn’t bring them all at once. If we could have done it, we would have,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “If there was a chance to bring them all in one fell swoop, do you think anyone here would object?”
Excerpts from audio – which the Guardian has not been able to verify – were broadcast by Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster.
According to a report on the Israeli news website Ynet, the daughter of one of the remaining hostages, Chaim Peri, 79, told Netanyahu that those still held in Gaza were “living on borrowed time,” adding that bringing the hostages home should be the government’s main priority.
Securing the return of the remaining hostages remains one of Israel’s principal stated war aims. But according local media, several at the meeting suggested that Israeli tactics were endangering the hostages.
One woman, who said that she and her husband had been separated days before she was returned to Israel, challenged Netanyahu over reports that Israel is considering using seawater to flood the network of tunnels where Hamas leaders – and the remaining hostages – are believed to be sheltering.
“He was taken to the tunnels, and you talk about flooding the tunnels with seawater. You prioritise politics over the hostages,” the woman said, according to Haaretz.
In an excerpt broadcast on Channel 12, the mother of a hostage reportedly shouted at defense minister Yoav Gallant: “I’m not prepared to sacrifice my son for your career … My son did not volunteer to die for the homeland. He was a civilian abducted from his home and his bed … Promise me that you’ll get back my son and all the other hostages, alive.”
After the meeting, Netanyahu told a press conference that he had heard allegations from returned hostages of sexual abuse during their captivity. “I heard, and you also heard, about sexual abuse and incidents of brutal rape like nothing else,” he told a news conference later.
Dani Miran, whose son Omri was taken hostage, was one of those who walked out of the meeting. “I won’t go into the details of what was discussed at the meeting but this entire performance was ugly, insulting, messy,” he told Israel’s Channel 13, saying the government had made a “farce” out of the issue.