Blinken greets protesters in Israel demanding return of Gaza hostages

By Humeyra Pamuk

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State of State Antony Blinken shook hands and chatted on Friday with demonstrators in Tel Aviv demanding Israel focus on the release of hostages held by Hamas, promising them that he was working to bring them home.

Several dozen people, including some family members of hostages, gathered outside a Tel Aviv hotel where Blinken's delegation was based, holding banners calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, which has been under bombardment since Hamas killed 1,200 people and took about 250 hostages on Oct. 7.

Some hostages were released in an earlier pause in fighting, but more than 100 are believed to remain, although some have been reported killed by Israeli airstrikes.

"No more blood, hostage deal now," they chanted.

Blinken, who earlier met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of Israel's war cabinet, delayed his departure from Israel to briefly greet the demonstrators.

"We're working to bring them home," Blinken said as he shook hands with the line of demonstrators, hitting his chest with his hand.

Blinken also met inside the hotel with the families of American-Israeli hostages, a U.S. official said.

Some in Israel have criticized Netanyahu for not securing a ceasefire deal with Hamas and instead focusing on rooting out the militant group from Gaza. Almost 32,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli assault, according to Gaza health authorities.

Tensions between the Biden administration and Netanyahu have spiked in recent weeks. Washington has implored Israel to do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, where aid agencies say much of the population is on the verge of famine, and warned against an offensive on the southern city of Rafah.

“We want to end the war. We don’t want to extend it," said Tom Schapiro, 27, who was among the protesters.

He said he opposed an offensive in Rafah, and urged Washington to use U.S. military support to Israel as leverage over Netanyahu.

"Blinken can press the government to make a deal, I’m sure he has some leverage. And if it means not sending weapons - he should be doing that. We think the hostages are the most important thing," Shapiro said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; writing by Simon Lewis, editing by Deepa Babington)