Widening Mideast Crisis: Political Divisions Over Conduct of War Roil Israel

Relatives and supporters of Israelis held hostage in Gaza started bonfires that partially blocked traffic on a major highway in Tel Aviv on Friday morning, in a sign of growing frustration over the government’s failure to bring the remaining hostages home.

Police officers detained seven protesters who had “participated in disorderly conduct and unlawful behavior,” questioned and then released them, the police said in a statement. The police quickly cleared the highway and restored the flow of traffic before the start of the Israeli weekend.

The Hostage and Missing Families Forum, the main group advocating for the hostages’ return, said it had not organized the protest that blocked the Ayalon Highway and did not condone it. Though there is broad-based support among Israelis for the Gaza campaign, many have become increasingly exasperated by the lack of progress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in bringing the hostages home.

At a news conference on Thursday, some relatives of captives accused Israel’s war cabinet of dragging its feet and called on the government to hammer out an international deal for the hostages. “Stop lying to us,” said Shir Siegel, whose father, Keith Siegel, 64, is among the hostages. “You’re not doing everything you can.”

Daniel Elgart, whose brother Itzik was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz, told Israeli TV on Friday that family members were willing to disrupt daily life, risking arrest and imprisonment, to get their loved ones back.

“We will have to do what the government isn’t doing,” he said. “Maybe we will have to go ourselves and block humanitarian aid from going into Gaza.”

Eli Shtivi, whose son, Idan, is a hostage, announced Friday that he started a hunger strike and urged other families to join him in camping out outside Mr. Netanayahu’s home in Caesarea, where he said he would wait until the prime minister comes out to speak with him. The younger Mr. Shtivi was kidnapped from the Nova festival.

About 130 people are believed still to be held captive in Gaza, out of more than 240 who Israeli officials said were snatched from homes and army bases during the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7.

The Israeli military’s offensive in Gaza, now in its fourth month, has failed to secure the hostages’ freedom, and there are no signs of a deal for them with Hamas. More than 100 hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November, in exchange for about 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, and calls in Israel for another such deal are growing.

The protest in Tel Aviv took place the day after the youngest hostage, Kfir Bibas, who was abducted with his parents and 4-year-old brother from their home in Nir Oz, had his first birthday. People in Tel Aviv and other parts of Israel released orange balloons in honor of the boy, a redhead, and lit candles on symbolic birthday cakes surrounded by gifts.

One protester briefly detained on Friday was Ayala Metzger, whose 80-year-old father-in-law, Yoram Metzger, remains captive in Gaza. Mr. Metzger has diabetes, struggles to walk because of a previously broken hip and has been without medications for three months, family members say.

His wife Tami, 78, who was also kidnapped from their home in Nir Oz, was released in November.

“The time has come for my government and prime minister to bring us back my father-in-law and his friends,” Ayala Metzger said, according to an interview with the Walla news site. She assailed Israel’s pullback of some ground troops, adding: “The government is withdrawing forces from Gaza and forgetting the hostages there.”

In a statement on Friday, the Israeli police said that while the force “firmly upholds the fundamental right to freedom of speech,” it would not tolerate threats to public order, “especially during times of war against a cruel terrorist organization.”

More protests were expected throughout the weekend. Several hundred demonstrators, mostly women, rallied on Friday morning in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, where cafes and restaurants swelled with people starting their weekend, watched over by an unusually heavy police presence.

Protesters dragged a cage that held a female performance artist wearing a dress with a large red stain on it, an allusion to the sexual violence Hamas militants committed on Oct. 7. Some 17 women, most of them young adults, are still being held hostage.

Protesters called out to people in cafes to “put down your espressos” and join in. Many carried signs saying: “A deal now!”