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Families of Hamas' hostages and many in Israel say they support a prisoner swap

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It has been a month since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Many Israelis are now calling for a sweeping prisoner exchange to free the hundreds of hostages taken captive last month during the Hamas attack on Israel. This comes as Israel's ground operations and bombing campaigns in Gaza grind on. The ministry of health in Gaza now reports more than 10,000 deaths, including thousands of women and children. Israel is still under rocket fire. And Israel says its goal is to eliminate Hamas and rescue the hostages, but a prisoner swap could be another option. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been talking with relatives of some of those hostages and reports from downtown Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is Israeli military headquarters in central Tel Aviv, where Israel's war cabinet is conducting the war on Gaza. And it's also where Israelis are rallying in support of the about 240 captives held hostage by Hamas inside Gaza. Here's a bus driver beeping his support. One man has been sitting outside Israeli military headquarters every day.

SHMUEL BRODUTCH: My name is Shmuel Brodutch. My three grandchildren and my daughter-in-law are now in Gaza.

ESTRIN: His grandchildren in Gaza are 4, 8 and 10 years old. They're held hostage along with other children, parents, grandparents, Israeli soldiers and foreign nationals. So far, Hamas has released four hostages through Qatar's mediation. The U.S. says talks are now focused on securing a significant pause in hostilities to allow for a large hostage release.

BRODUTCH: The only way to bring them back safe is to have a deal. If the army will go to free them, a big percentage of them will be dead. I don't want to get my grandchildren back as corpses.

ESTRIN: Israeli ground troops did free one hostage, but Hamas is believed to be holding many hostages in underground chambers, where it would be hard for soldiers to rescue them. So what would a hostage release deal look like? Hamas has called for a big prisoner exchange. Israel says no such deal is on the table. But there is growing support for one in Israel. Brodutch holds a poster that says all in exchange for all, meaning Israel releasing all its Palestinian prisoners and Hamas releasing all its hostages. Brodutch supports any kind of deal that brings the hostages home.

BRODUTCH: That is the only victory that can be done. Israel was defeated. I want the Israeli authorities to pay any price that is needed to get them back now.

ESTRIN: There is precedent for a prisoner swap. Twelve years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a kidnapped Israeli soldier. A prisoner swap now could be even bigger - Israel releasing all its Palestinian prisoners, about 6,700 inmates, being held on what are called security offenses, including hundreds serving life sentences for the killing of Israeli civilians and soldiers over the decades. Across the street from military headquarters is an office building where there's a massive advocacy effort by the main group representing family and friends of the Israeli hostages. They've been careful not to adopt an official position on how Israel should secure their release.

SHIRI GROSBARD: You know, we're not busy telling government or any other officials how to do that.

ESTRIN: Shiri Grosbard has a colleague held hostage.

GROSBARD: We just want them home.

ESTRIN: When troops entered Gaza, the families demanded an immediate meeting with Netanyahu. They worried the ground operation could endanger the hostages. Now the idea of a prisoner exchange is being touted, even by a hawkish former defense minister and by a growing number of the families of hostages.

SHELLY SHEM-TOV: Of course. Definitely.

MALKI SHEM-TOV: Definitely.

S SHEM-TOV: Definitely.

ESTRIN: Shelly and Malki Shem-Tov have a son, Omer, who just turned 21 in Hamas captivity.

Even if it means, like, all of the prisoners?

S SHEM-TOV: All of the prisoners, yes.

ESTRIN: On both sides?

S SHEM-TOV: On both sides, yes, definitely.

ESTRIN: A recent Israeli opinion poll found nearly two-thirds support a prisoner exchange. Another poll found split opinions but no overwhelming opposition.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Well, you shouldn't be surprised.

ESTRIN: Yohanan Plesner runs the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, which conducted the surveys.

PLESNER: We have never dealt with such a situation of so many Israeli hostages, so many youngsters, kids that are held in captivity. Time is of the essence. So I think Israelis will be willing to go very far in order to get them released short of one important goal. It's not instead of dismantling Hamas.

ESTRIN: One Israeli family has been outspoken in opposing a prisoner exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMUNA NISIM LIBMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Emuna Nisim Libman has a brother held in Gaza. In a video, she says, I miss my brother with all my heart, but we know that a cease-fire and prisoner exchange are destructive for our children's future. She says it could lead to another October 7-style attack. One of the released prisoners in Israel's last swap with Hamas 12 years ago is now the head of Hamas in Gaza, whom Israel accuses of helping mastermind last month's attack. Some Israelis we meet outside military headquarters have their own proposal. Michal Barkai and Sarah Tal.

SARAH TAL: We let them go from the prison to Gaza, and then we'll kill them in Gaza. We continue the war.

ESTRIN: This weekend family and friends of the hostages demonstrated outside army headquarters...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: ...Chanting now, now, now, saying the release of hostages should be the first priority. Tsipi Haitovsky has friends whose siblings are being held in Gaza.

TSIPI HAITOVSKY: You know, the government promises that they'll destroy Hamas. That's not enough. The No. 1 task now is to first bring home our people from Gaza.

ESTRIN: It's unclear how Israel can pursue its two goals - getting hostages released safely and eviscerating the very group holding them. What is clear is that many Israelis are open to any kind of deal with Hamas to secure the captives' freedom. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.