Yuval Haran’s goal was clear when he came up with the idea of marching across Israel alongside fellow members of families whose relatives were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7: free the hostages. And on November 14 as they set out from Tel Aviv, he still hoped that the five-day procession to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem would influence decision-makers to bring their loved ones home.
Thursday evening, at the end of the third day, Haran acknowledged that the highly publicized march, carefully organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, had not yet achieved its goal. But standing on a hilltop at Latrun in central Israel where the families and their supporters were camping out for the night, Haran pointed out that something else had happened.
“We have drawn enormous strength from people who have joined us in our march as well as from those who have been cheering us on,” said Haran, referring to the large flag-waving crowds that have come out to meet the families on their circuitous route through the towns of Be’er Yaakov, Ramle, Lod, Beit Hashmonai, Modi’in and Kibbutz Sha’alvim.
Some of the marchers are friends of the families, and others, like Racheli Gabriel, who works in the medical device industry, felt a sense of duty to participate.
“My work had taken me to New York where I participated in a demonstration at the residence of the UN Secretary-General. Now that I’m back I wanted to be part of the effort here,” Gabriel told The Times of Israel.
The improvement in the morale of the families was apparent on Thursday night as the families mingled with residents from nearby communities who had set up food stands for them.
“It has given us a lot of energy to actually be doing something,” said 18-year-old Daria Gonen, whose sister Romi was abducted from the Supernova music party.
She observed that instead of just standing around at the Tel Aviv Museum square, now known as “Hostage Square,” where she and many of the other family members had been gathering for daily demonstrations, there was something rejuvenating about the challenge of walking as many as 25 kilometers a day – the distance they covered on the first day as they trekked from Tel Aviv to a makeshift camping site at a soccer field in the town of Be’er Yaakov.
“It was blazing hot as we left Tel Aviv and so most of us weren’t prepared for the sudden downfall of rain that came showering on us a few hours into the journey,” Gonen recalled. “We were soaking wet, but it only lifted our spirits. Many people were laughing, maybe for the first time in a long time.”
Gonen points out that she tries to be at the front of the line whenever the media are taking pictures of the marching procession.
“If somehow and somewhere Romi manages to see the pictures, I want her to know that we are doing everything we can for her,” she said.
Marching along the way, Gonen has become close friends with fellow 18-year-old Yaela David, who also has a sibling kidnapped at the Supernova party – her brother Evyatar. David also feels that the trek has empowered them.
“Even when there was a [rocket attack] warning siren when we were in an open field and had to dive down to the ground, we were not discouraged. “We are going to keep on until our voices make the whole world tremble,” David adds.
After the evening dinner break, the families gather around a stage where several musicians perform songs, improvising lyrics to include chanting the families’ mantra, “achshav, achshav, now, bring them home now.”
As several family members address the gathering, the good spirits of the day give way to anger and frustration.
“We are losing patience,” says Mirit Regev, the mother of two kidnapped children. “Everywhere family members have traveled in the world, to Washington, Brussels and Paris, government leaders have embraced us and asked what they can do for us. But we have no idea what our leaders are doing. They need to look us in the eyes and tell us what they are doing.”
Following the speeches, the families gather at the front of the stage. After 40 days of protesting, they have become well-accustomed to holding up photos of their loved ones for the news photographers while the rest of the crowd shines their phone lights as a gesture of support.
Afterward, Haran stands outside drinking coffee while members of the march come to greet him. Several compliment him about initiating a project that has gained their cause much-needed attention. Haran, 36, was the manager of computer operations at Kibbutz Be’eri until October 7 when his father, aunt and uncle were murdered by Hamas terrorists, who also kidnapped seven of his family members.