‘He has blood on his hands’: Shock and fury of Israel’s hostage families pose new danger to Netanyahu’s rule

It was 6.45am last Saturday when the sirens rang out. As the news of Hamas’s shock attack broke across a half-awake Israel, Natalia Ben-Zvi frantically called her 24-year-old son Sagiv. He was at the Supernova Music Festival, three kilometres from the border with Gaza.

“I’m safe”, he said, picking up the phone straight away. He’d already left the festival before the sirens sounded and was now driving back home with his best friend. “Mum, I’ll see you later.”

Natalia put the phone down and waited, anxiously. She opened Find My iPhone. It said he was near Kibbutz Mefalsim, somewhere north of the festival. A good sign, she hoped; he was heading in the right direction.

But 90 minutes later, the app pinged again: Sagiv’s phone was in the Gaza Strip.

Over the next week, the Ben-Zvi family went into detective mode. They found a friend in Kibbutz Mefalsim who tracked down Sagiv’s car. It had some bullet holes in the side, but “nothing major”, Sagiv’s uncle, Avishay Gazit, 46, says. And crucially, there was no sign of blood.

Sagiv Ben Zvi was attending the Supernova festival, pictured being searched by Israeli soldiers after festivalgoers were massacred by Hamas (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty)

The Ben Zvis believe he has been taken hostage in Gaza.

“He just went to party,” says Mr Gazit. “He’d just come back from almost six months travelling through South America, meeting people from all over the world, exploring. He was just starting to work and save money for university. He had his whole future in front of him.”

“He’s my baby brother,” says his sister, Gail Ben Zvi, 30. “He was the baby of the family.”

Now, the Ben Zvis are joining many of the families of Israeli hostages who are angry at the government – for their slow reaction to Hamas’s offensive, poor communication since, and military planning which could put their loved-ones at risk.

On Saturday, the National Security Council chief Tzachi Hanegbi said “Israel will not hold negotiations with an enemy that we have vowed to wipe from the face of the Earth.”

In a cabinet meeting on Saturday, Israel’s firebrand finance minister Bezalel Smotrich was quoted as saying: “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration.”

“In war you have to be brutal,” he reportedly said. “We need to deal a blow that hasn’t been seen in 50 years and take down Gaza.”

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 14: Families of Israeli captives in Gaza, holding banners, gather in front of the Israeli Defense Ministry building during the protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 14, 2023. The demonstration titled 'Support for relatives of captive' turned into a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Families of Israeli captives in Gaza gather in front of the Israeli Defence Ministry in protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv (Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 14: People look at the portraits of the Israeli captives in Gaza as families of Israeli captives in Gaza, holding banners, gather in front of the Israeli Defense Ministry building during the protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 14, 2023. The demonstration titled 'Support for relatives of captive' turned into a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Portraits of the Israeli captives in Gaza as families of Israeli captives in Gaza gather in front of the Israeli Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv (Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)

But for the Ben Zvi family, who are still waiting for information on the fate of Sagiv: “The price is too high. We have our babies there.”

In response to Mr Smotrich’s comments, the families’ forum, set up to represent those with missing relatives, issued a statement condemning the government.

Ronen Tzur, head of the group, said that if Israel would not negotiate with Hamas then the government was effectively abandoning the captives. “This purely and simply means that the Israeli Government has chosen a strategy of abandoning the captives and missing.”

After much domestic pressure, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met the families on Sunday. He is reported to have told them that “one of the goals of the war is the return of the captive and missing”.

However, this may not have been enough. Across Israel, many experts see this hostage crisis as something that could pose a serious threat to the government.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 14: A protester looks at the portraits of the Israeli captives in Gaza as families of Israeli captives in Gaza, holding banners, gather in front of the Israeli Defense Ministry building during the protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 14, 2023. The demonstration titled 'Support for relatives of captive' turned into a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)
A protester in Tel Aviv looks at portraits of the Israeli captives taken into Gaza, before a demonstration in support of the families on Saturday (Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)

At a rally in Tel Aviv outside Israel’s Defence Ministry on Saturday, protesters turned up to show solidarity with the families of the hostages. Some chanted “Go to jail, Bibi” and “Leave.” Others carried placards saying “Bibi, you have blood on your hands.” ‘Bibi’ is a nickname for Mr Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, a Dialog Centre poll released last Thursday found that four out of five Jewish Israelis believed that the government and Prime Minister were to blame for Hamas’s offensive on Israel and the massacre and hostage-taking that followed.

The history of hostage-taking in this long, bloody, on-and-off Israel-Gaza conflict stretches back decades.

In 2006, Hamas kidnapped a young Israeli conscript, Gilad Shalit. His case quickly became an Israeli national obsession, leading to a relentless bombing campaign over Gaza before he was eventually released in 2011, in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Aged just 19 when he was taken hostage, Mr Shalit became a figure of national affection – in this country where national service is mandatory and so many families see their teenage offspring join the military.

His case shows the political potency of hostage-taking – something Hamas no doubt will have been conscious of when planning their offensive.

Of course, tracking down a hostage in the Gaza strip is no easy task. Although it’s small and surveilled intensively by Israeli authorities, it remains notoriously difficult to gain information. Hamas operate hundreds of kilometres of tunnels beneath ground, which they use to hide fighters, weaponry and prisoners.

As Israel readies itself for the next phase of this conflict, the best tactics for rescuing the hostages and wreaking revenge on Hamas are debated intensively on all levels of society. Unfortunately, few scenarios seem likely to achieve both goals.

“This is a serious dilemma,” said veteran Israeli political commentator Ehud Yaari. “The fear is that if and when a ground operation kicks off, Hamas will threaten to execute hostages every hour, every two hours, and that will become a really heated debate.”

Before this conflict even began, Mr Netanyahu had faced his most testing year in government. Now, as the Israel-Gaza conflict enters a new phase, this hostage crisis presents a dangerous, unprecedented challenge.