March to Jerusalem calls for top priority on hostages


Thousands of family members and supporters of some 240 hostages held in Gaza have streamed into Jerusalem, castigating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government over his management of the war with Hamas.

As public pressure mounted, Netanyahu said Israel's war cabinet would meet with representatives of the families this week.

"I am marching with you. The Israeli people are marching with you," he said.

The march capped a five-day trek from Tel Aviv and represented the largest protest on behalf of the hostages since they were dragged into Gaza by Hamas on October 7 as part of the militants' deadly attack in southern Israel.

About 1,200 people were killed in Israel on the day of the surprise Hamas assault.

Israel declared war in response, and Gaza health officials say more than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed during the punishing air and ground offensive in the territory.

Israeli leaders have set dual objectives - to crush Hamas and to bring the hostages home.

Some of the hostage families have said they fear that the military offensive endangers their loved ones.

Israeli leaders, in turn, have argued that only military pressure on Hamas will lead to some hostage releases in a possible deal involving a temporary ceasefire.

The families pleaded for more empathy and responsiveness from the government.

On Saturday, the marchers carried Israeli flags and photos of the hostages as they finished the 70-kilometre walk to Jerusalem and slowly converged on Netanyahu's office.

Once there, they were joined by crowds carrying yellow balloons printed with the words "Bring them home."

"I want you to look in my eyes and try to understand just a bit of the trauma I'm feeling," Daria Gonen, referring to Israeli leaders, said at the rally.

Her 23-year-old sister, Romi Gonen, was kidnapped by Hamas from a music festival-turned-massacre near Gaza.

Ruby Chen, whose 19 year old son was taken said  the families want to "keep the awareness of the hostage issue as a top priority for the government of Israel".

The march came as Israeli media reported that the war cabinet was considering a Qatari-brokered deal to win the release of the women and children among the hostages.

In exchange, Israel would agree to a ceasefire of several days and release several dozen of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it is holding.

Mr Netanyahu denied on Saturday that a deal had been struck.

"On the issue of hostages, there are a lot of unsubstantiated rumours, a lot of incorrect reports. I want to clarify, until this moment, there has not been a deal," he said.

Of the more than 240 hostages kidnapped to Gaza, five have been released - four of them through international diplomacy involving Qatar, and one who was rescued by Israeli troops.

Their freedom raised the hopes of other families.

But Israel this week confirmed the deaths of two hostages, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad have published several videos of hostages who looked unwell, provoking fear and concern among many.