The families of more than 220 prisoners captured by Hamas demanded answers from the Israeli government. Many feared that a military attack on the Gaza Strip would endanger the lives of prisoners.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled war planning for a hastily arranged meeting with captive families on Saturday after they threatened to launch street protests to express their desperation.

During the meeting, Hamas said Israel must release all Palestinian prisoners from its prisons to ensure the freedom of hostages seized by Hamas militants on October 7.

According to a video released by his office, Netanyahu did not commit to a deal but told the families: “We will exhaust all options to bring them home.” The discovery of the hostages – whose ages range from a few months to over 80 years old – was an “integral part” of the military operation, he added.

At a later press conference alongside Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Hamas needed to be forced to the negotiating table but that the matter was “very complex.”

“The more military pressure, the more firepower and the more we attack Hamas — the greater our chances of getting them to a point where they agree to a solution that allows the return of your loved ones,” he said.

“Every minute is an eternity”

The government says it has confirmed that 229 prisoners from more than 20 countries were arrested as of October 7. Hamas’s military wing says “nearly 50” hostages have died in daily Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

“We are ready to enter into an immediate prisoner exchange agreement that would provide for the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Yahya Sinwar, Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said in a statement.

Thousands of Palestinians are being held in 19 prisons in Israel and one in the occupied West Bank.

A representative of the families told Netanyahu that they support a full prisoner exchange.

“As far as families are concerned, an agreement for the immediate return of our family members within the framework of ‘all for all’ is feasible and there will be broad national support for this,” said MeIrav Gonen, the representative. Her daughter Romi is one of the prisoners.

Israeli families are increasingly angered by the “absolute uncertainty” they face over the fate of prisoners, particularly from the severe bombings, said Haim Rubinstein, a spokesman for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

Hundreds of relatives of Israeli prisoners held a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, threatening more street protests if a government minister did not meet them the same day. Demonstrations in support of the prisoners’ families also took place in Haifa, Atlit, Caesarea, Be’er Sheva and Eilat.

“The families are not sleeping, they want answers, they deserve answers,” Rubinstein said.

Hostage families say they have had little contact with the government.

“We don’t know anything about what happened to them. We don’t know if they were shot, if they saw a doctor, if they have food,” said Inbal Zach, 38, whose cousin Tal Shoham was kidnapped along with six other family members from Kibbutz Beeri near the Gaza fence .

“We’re just really worried about her.”

“Waiting for an explanation”

Families disagree about what action to take. Some believe a hard line against Hamas is justified, others believe an agreement should be reached.

Asked about Hamas’ demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners, Ifat Kalderon, whose cousin is a hostage, said: “Take her, we don’t need her here.” I want my family and all the hostages to return home, they are citizens , they are not soldiers.”

The rally in Tel Aviv followed one of the most violent nights of the war, when the military bombed Gaza.

“No one from the war cabinet has bothered to meet with the families to clarify one thing: whether the ground operation endangers the well-being of the 229 hostages,” the forum said in a statement.

“The families are worried about the fate of their loved ones and are waiting for an explanation. Every minute feels like an eternity.”

Sources told Al Jazeera on Friday that Qatar-brokered negotiations on a ceasefire and prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas were “progressive and at an advanced stage.”

But Israel’s increasing air and artillery attacks, disruption of communications and ground attacks appear to have hampered ceasefire negotiations.

Israel said Hamas killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, when militants stormed across the border on October 7.

According to the Health Ministry, more than 7,700 people were killed in Israeli retaliatory attacks on Gaza, including about 3,500 children.

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