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What a Tel Aviv Plaza Means to Hostage Families and Supporters

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A week after Hamas-led terrorists stormed his kibbutz and kidnapped his wife and three young children, Avihai Brodutch planted himself on the sidewalk in front of army headquarters in Tel Aviv holding a sign scrawled with the words “My family’s in Gaza,” and said he would not budge until they were brought home.

Passers-by stopped to commiserate with him and to try to lift his spirits. They brought him coffee, platters of food and changes of clothing, and welcomed him to their homes to wash up and get some sleep.

“They were so kind, and they just couldn’t do enough,” said Mr. Brodutch, 42, an agronomist who grew pineapples on Kibbutz Kfar Azza before the attacks on Oct. 7. “It was Israel at its finest,” he said. “There was a feeling of a common destiny.”

The one-man sit-in mushroomed in the weeks after the attacks. But the sidewalks outside the military headquarters could not contain multitudes, and some people were uncomfortable with the location, which was associated with anti-government protests last year.

So the mass moved a block north to the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where a long rectangular table set for 234 people and surrounded by empty chairs had been installed to represent the captives. Since some 110 hostages have come home, half of the table has been reset to correspond to the conditions of captivity they described, with half a moldy piece of pita bread on each plate and bottles of dirty water on the table instead of wineglasses.

In the months since the attacks, the plaza has continued to attract a steady stream of Israelis and tourists on volunteer missions who want to support the families. But it has also become a home away from home for the parents, adult children, siblings, cousins and other relatives of hostages.

Although it can get damp and chilly in Tel Aviv in the winter, many have set up tents in the plaza, often sleeping there, keeping company with the only other people in the world who they say can truly understand what they are experiencing — the family members of other hostages.

“If I don’t know what to do, I come here,” said Yarden Gonen, 30, who was wearing a white sweatshirt emblazoned with a picture of her sister Romi Gonen, 23, who was shot and kidnapped at the outdoor Nova music festival near the Gaza border. A friend with her was killed.

“None of us is doing anything remotely related to our previous lives,” Yarden Gonen said. Even having coffee in a cafe would make her feel bad, she said.

“To do that would be to normalize the situation,” she said. “It would be like saying, ‘This is OK, and I’m used to it.’ And I’m not willing to do that.”

Ms. Gonen said she found comfort in the constant presence in the square of people who are not related to the hostages, like the peace activists from Women Wage Peace who stand vigil daily from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. so the families are not alone, and a trio of women who bonded over their anger at international organizations they believe have failed the hostages (they carry posters that say, “Red Cross Do Your Job!” or “U.N. Women, Where Are You?”).

“When it’s raining and I see that they’ve come, it is moving, because they could have stayed cozy at home,” Ms. Gonen said. “There is a feeling that they support us, that we haven’t been abandoned.”

Although the Israeli government has stated that one of the primary goals of the war in Gaza is to free the hostages, the army has said it has so far rescued only a small number of individuals. Three others were mistakenly killed by Israeli troops.

Most of the hostages who have returned — including Mr. Brodutch’s wife and children — were released in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, as part of a cease-fire deal negotiated with Hamas in November.

For many of the hostage families, the greatest fear is that despite the stated goal, the government is not prioritizing the extrication of the hostages. They worry it may ultimately chalk up the loss of the remaining captives as just more collateral damage in the bloody conflict.

The Gaza health ministry says that more than 29,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the territory since the war’s start.

Many people who come to the Tel Aviv plaza regularly say that if Israel does not secure the release of the hostages, the country will never be the same. “We will be worth nothing if they don’t come back,” said Jemima Kronfeld, 84, who visits every Thursday. “We will have no value. We will lose what we were, the safe feeling of being at home.”

In the initial chaos after the surprise attacks, many people did not know if their relatives — who had gone missing from kibbutzim and the site of a rave near the Gaza border — had been bound and dragged across the border, or killed, and many complained that the government was unresponsive.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a grass-roots citizens’ group, sprung up to fill the void. The group provides a wide range of services for hostage families, serving them three meals a day, making medical, psychological and legal services available, and acting as an advocacy group, organizing and funding news media appearances and meetings with world leaders, as well as rallies pressing for the hostages’ release.

The forum raises private donations but has received no support from the Israeli government, which still does not provide the families with regular updates, said Liat Bell Sommer, who quit her day job to head the forum’s international media relations team.

Other volunteers pitch in when they can.

“I just felt like I had to do something — I thought I’d go crazy if I didn’t have some part in this,” said Hilla Shtein, 49, of Tel Aviv, a human resources manager who goes to the plaza several times a week to work a stand where visitors can make a donation and pick up hats, sweatshirts and buttons that say “Bring them home NOW.”

The most popular items — ubiquitous throughout Israel now — are dog tags that say “Our hearts are hostage in Gaza,” in Hebrew.

“It’s hard, because it’s really in your face when you’re here,” Ms. Shtein said, adding, “But it’s pulling at your heart all the time anyway.”

After reports last week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told negotiators not to participate further in talks in Cairo about a cease-fire and the return of the hostages, the forum accused the government of abandoning the captives. Thousands protested on Saturday night, despite thunderstorms, calling on the government to secure their immediate return.

Those who visit the plaza regularly say that there is always something new to see.

In January, the artist Roni Levavi installed a giant 30-yard tunnel that people can walk through to experience being in a dark sealed space, like the tunnels in Gaza that some returned hostages have described being held in. Romi Gonen’s dance teachers hold an open lesson on the plaza every Sunday afternoon in her honor, and friends of Carmel “Melly” Gat, 39, a hostage who is an occupational therapist and yoga instructor, teach an open yoga class every Friday morning.

There is a booth where visitors can write letters to hostages, or paint a rock if they prefer, and another booth that offers mental health first aid. Occasionally, someone will sit down and play an Israeli pop song at a piano donated by relatives of Alon Ohel, 22, a musician who was kidnapped from the rave, and the crowd sings along.

When it is a hostage’s birthday, some families commemorate the day in the square, where a symbolic high chair and birthday cake are set up for Kfir Bibas, who would have turned 1 in captivity. The Israeli army said Monday that it feared for the safety of the baby and his family.

In early February, Albert Xhelili, 57, an artist visiting from Santa Fe, N.M., attracted onlookers when he started drawing charcoal portraits of the hostages that he hung on a clothesline in one of the tents on the square.

Ariel Rosenberg, 31, a marketing consultant from New York who came to Israel in January as part of a group to do volunteer work, said she and her fellow travelers had been at the plaza recently to help sort posters with pictures of the hostages, separating out those who had been released and those who were no longer alive, something that was painful for the families to do.

Ms. Rosenberg said the group members find themselves coming back every Saturday night to attend weekly rallies calling for the immediate release of the hostages, and they often stop by on other evenings as well. “I come to bear witness,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “It’s become sacred ground.”

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