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A march on Jerusalem, with freed hostages and families demanding a deal

Meirav Leshem Gonen (left), whose daughter Romi is being held hostage in Gaza, embraces Sharon Alony Cunio, who was kidnapped and released from captivity along with her two children and whose husband, David, remains hostage, as the march to Jerusalem passes Kibbutz Sa'ad in southern Israel on Feb. 28.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Meirav Leshem Gonen (left), whose daughter Romi is being held hostage in Gaza, embraces Sharon Alony Cunio, who was kidnapped and released from captivity along with her two children and whose husband, David, remains hostage, as the march to Jerusalem passes Kibbutz Sa'ad in southern Israel on Feb. 28.

ROAD 232, Israel — On Oct. 7, Romi Gonen was fleeing the Hamas-led attack on a music festival via this dusty road when she was captured by militants and dragged back to Gaza. One-hundred and forty-five days later, on Feb. 28, her mother and dozens of Israelis, whose loved ones were also taken hostage, stopped at that very spot as they made their way to Jerusalem.

The families and their supporters were a few hours into a four-day march demanding the Israeli government reach a deal with the Palestinian militant group Hamas that would free the hostages. But this first leg of the journey — through the areas that were attacked on Oct. 7 — was personal.

Relatives of the hostages who remain in captivity in Gaza and their supporters pass by red anemone flowers as they begin a four-day march from the site of the Hamas attack on the Nova music festival in Re'im, Israel, to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Relatives of the hostages who remain in captivity in Gaza and their supporters pass by red anemone flowers as they begin a four-day march from the site of the Hamas attack on the Nova music festival in Re'im, Israel, to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
People rest during a break outside of Kibbutz Alumim, Israel, which was attacked on Oct. 7, as families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters march from southern Israel to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
People rest during a break outside of Kibbutz Alumim, Israel, which was attacked on Oct. 7, as families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters march from southern Israel to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
Noga Persi visits a shelter near Kibbutz Be'eri, which was attacked on Oct. 7, as families of the hostages and supporters begin their four-day march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Noga Persi visits a shelter near Kibbutz Be'eri, which was attacked on Oct. 7, as families of the hostages and supporters begin their four-day march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.

Meirav Leshem Gonen, 54, Romi's mother, told the crowd about her daughter — a 23-year-old dancer and a medic who always speaks her mind. Gonen struggled to maintain her composure while recalling their last phone call in which she could hear Romi fearing for her life against a terrifying backdrop of gunfire. Standing before some of the only people who understand how she feels, Gonen opened up.

"It's OK to cry, it's OK to be emotional," she said to the families, equipped with comfortable shoes, sun hats and a shared sense of both urgency and purpose. "But we are strong and we are here together and are united behind the understanding that our nation must bring our hostages back."

An Israeli activist dressed as a clown rides an electric bike alongside Israeli soldiers accompanying families of the hostages and supporters near the start of the four-day march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28. The activist, who goes by the name "Hashoteret Az-Oolay," regularly attends demonstrations for a variety of issues across Israel.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
An Israeli activist dressed as a clown rides an electric bike alongside Israeli soldiers accompanying families of the hostages and supporters near the start of the four-day march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28. The activist, who goes by the name "Hashoteret Az-Oolay," regularly attends demonstrations for a variety of issues across Israel.
People attending the march to Jerusalem and Israeli soldiers accompanying them pray during a break at a gas station near Kibbutz Sa'ad on Feb. 28.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
People attending the march to Jerusalem and Israeli soldiers accompanying them pray during a break at a gas station near Kibbutz Sa'ad on Feb. 28.

The families have spent the better part of the last five months fighting for the hostages by asserting pressure on the Israeli government and foreign leaders through round-the-clock advocacy across Israel and around the world. The approximately 30-mile march, bridged by short bus rides to keep it at four days, was their latest push to keep attention focused on the plight of the hostages, unite a fractured Israel over a common cause and to further pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration to secure a deal that would release them.

"We've gotten now to 150 days," said Darya Gonen, 18, Romi's younger sister. "Our leaders are starting to deal with other things, and if we don't keep it on the agenda every day in some way or another, it will just be forgotten."

A resident of Sderot, Israel, watches a ceremony with the families of the hostages at the site of the former Sderot police station, where eight police officers were killed in a gun battle with Hamas militants and over 20 civilians were killed nearby on Oct. 7, at the end of the first day of the march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A resident of Sderot, Israel, watches a ceremony with the families of the hostages at the site of the former Sderot police station, where eight police officers were killed in a gun battle with Hamas militants and over 20 civilians were killed nearby on Oct. 7, at the end of the first day of the march to Jerusalem on Feb. 28.
Families of the hostages being held in Gaza and supporters carry stretchers representing each of the 134 hostages, 100 of whom Israel says are still alive, near Beit Shemesh, Israel, as they make their way to Jerusalem on March 1.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages being held in Gaza and supporters carry stretchers representing each of the 134 hostages, 100 of whom Israel says are still alive, near Beit Shemesh, Israel, as they make their way to Jerusalem on March 1.
Orna and Ronen Neutra, parents of Omer Neutra, an Israeli soldier who was taken hostage on Oct. 7 and remains in Gaza, recite traditional Shabbat blessings during a ceremony at Kibbutz Tsor'a on March 1. Mr. Neutra spoke at a rally in Tel Aviv on day 50 and again on day 100. "We are not seeing yet on day 150 that they'll be home," he said. "It's really painful to try and go day by day with this."
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Orna and Ronen Neutra, parents of Omer Neutra, an Israeli soldier who was taken hostage on Oct. 7 and remains in Gaza, recite traditional Shabbat blessings during a ceremony at Kibbutz Tsor'a on March 1. Mr. Neutra spoke at a rally in Tel Aviv on day 50 and again on day 100. "We are not seeing yet on day 150 that they'll be home," he said. "It's really painful to try and go day by day with this."
Itay Siegel, whose aunt Aviva was freed and uncle Keith remains hostage, prepares to sleep in a gym at Kibbutz Tsor'a with other families on March 1. "I want to make sure that in this story, there is a chapter about - kedushat ha-hayyim – about the importance of life – that life is much more important than death, it's much more important than ego, it's much more important than land," Siegel said.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Itai Siegel, whose aunt Aviva was freed and uncle Keith remains hostage, prepares to sleep in a gym at Kibbutz Tsor'a with other families on March 1. "I want to make sure that in this story, there is a chapter about - kedushat ha-hayyim – about the importance of life – that life is much more important than death, it's much more important than ego, it's much more important than land," Siegel said.

On Oct. 7, 1,200 people were killed and 240 were taken hostage when thousands of Hamas-led militants burst through the Gaza border fence and stormed nearby Israeli communities. Israel responded with widespread airstrikes and a ground operation to eliminate Hamas, which has since killed more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza's health officials.

Since then, 112 of the hostages have been freed, 105 of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in late November. As part of the truce, Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Israel believes Hamas still holds 134 people captive in Gaza — around 100 of them still alive.

Michal Rahoom, whose best friend Eliya Cohen was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, drives a car covered in photos of him ahead of family members of the hostages and their supporters as they approach Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Michal Rahoom, whose best friend Eliya Cohen was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, drives a car covered in photos of him ahead of family members of the hostages and their supporters as they approach Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2.
Supporters of the families of the hostages line the street as the march leaves Mevaseret Zion, Israel, and makes its way to Jerusalem on its fourth and final day, on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Supporters of the families of the hostages line the street as the march leaves Mevaseret Zion, Israel, and makes its way to Jerusalem on its fourth and final day, on March 2.

Now Israel is faced with the impossible choice of negotiating with the very group that attacked it, and that it has sworn to destroy. Netanyahu has said that the military offensive in Gaza is the best way to release the hostages, but many of their families say the government should be willing to pay whatever price is necessary to bring them back alive, even if it means ending the war.

"We're in the year 2024 and we have to find another way to solve disagreements," said Itai Siegel, 34, whose aunt Aviva was released from captivity in November and whose uncle, Keith, remains in Gaza. "Shooting is way too easy."

Amid fraught indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over conditions for a new cease-fire, the families of the hostages gathered in a shady grove of eucalyptus trees in Re'im, where hundreds of partygoers were killed and kidnapped, including Romi Gonen, and started their journey. Last November, relatives and supporters of hostages held a similar march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Days later, the Israeli government and Hamas leaders struck a temporary cease-fire deal. The marchers hoped this second march would bring a similar outcome.

Families of the hostages held in Gaza and thousands of supporters approach Jerusalem on March 2, the march's fourth and final day.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and thousands of supporters approach Jerusalem on March 2, the march's fourth and final day.
A woman holds an Israeli flag as family members of the hostages held in Gaza and their supporters approach Jerusalem on March 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A woman holds an Israeli flag as family members of the hostages held in Gaza and their supporters approach Jerusalem on March 2.
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and thousands of supporters approach Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2. Returned hostage Gabriela Leimberg said she and others saw the previous march on television during their captivity. "Seeing that gave us a lot of strength, power and hope," she said to the crowd at the start of the fourth day.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and thousands of supporters approach Jerusalem on the march's fourth and final day, on March 2. Returned hostage Gabriela Leimberg said she and others saw the previous march on television during their captivity. "Seeing that gave us a lot of strength, power and hope," she said to the crowd at the start of the fourth day.

"A deal is possible," said Ronen Neutra at the start of the march. Neutra's son Omer is an Israeli soldier and an American citizen who was taken captive while responding to the attacks. "The State of Israel cannot be fully restored without securing the release of all the hostages — the living and the murdered."

By the time the march approached the ascent to Jerusalem on its final day, the numbers had grown from around 100 at its start to 15,000 people at its peak, according to the organizers. "All of them, now!" the crowd chanted in Hebrew as it approached the city.

Romi's sister Darya was among them, wearing a black T-shirt with her sister's photo on it and flanked by her family and friends. All she cares about is seeing her sister again.

"My life from before doesn't matter anymore," Darya said. "We are all focused on the same goal — that she and all the other hostages come home; until then, we won't be able to rest."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on March 2, the march's fourth and final day.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Families of the hostages held in Gaza and supporters make their way through Jerusalem on March 2, the march's fourth and final day.
Family members of the hostages still held in Gaza and their supporters sing Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, at the end of a rally that concluded their four-day march to Jerusalem on March 2.<strong> </strong>Darya Gonen(second row, right), was among them, wearing a black T-shirt with her sister's photo on it.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Family members of the hostages still held in Gaza and their supporters sing Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, at the end of a rally that concluded their four-day march to Jerusalem on March 2. Darya Gonen(second row, right), was among them, wearing a black T-shirt with her sister's photo on it.

Tamir Kalifa

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