Families of hostages held captive in Gaza condemned Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United States Congress, as pressure grows on the Israeli prime minister to agree to a deal to secure their release.

“The speech and applause won’t erase the one sad fact: The words ‘Deal Now!’ were absent from the prime minister’s address,” The Hostage and Missing Families Forum in Israel said in a statement.

People gathered at the so-called Hostages Square in Tel Aviv to watch Netanyahu’s speech on Wednesday, which drew raucous applause inside Congress but was also snubbed by dozens of Democrats.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum has become a potent political force in Israel since some 250 people were abducted by Hamas on October 7, and the square a regular site of protests demanding that the hostages be brought home.

“They came to watch the broadcast of the speech and hear addresses from family members of the hostages, hoping to hear the Prime Minister utter the two crucial words: ‘There’s a deal,’” the statement said.

During his nearly 52-minute address, Netanyahu lashed out against critics of Israel’s war in Gaza but did not mention the status of the ceasefire negotiations, despite intense international pressure to find a deal and growing optimism that one could soon be struck.

Rather than mentioning a deal, a bellicose Netanyahu told Congress: “The war in Gaza could end tomorrow if Hamas surrenders, disarms and returns all the hostages. But if they don’t, Israel will fight until we destroy Hamas’ military capabilities, end its rule in Gaza and bring all our hostages home.”

But Netanyahu is facing growing calls to negotiate a deal to secure the hostages’ release. Noam Peri, daughter of Chaim Peri, who the Israeli government last month said died in Hamas captivity, said: “You can no longer save my father, but you must return to our shared values and restore the basic contract between us – before it’s too late.”

“Sign the deal, save the hostages who are alive and fighting for their lives every moment,” she urged.

Criticism from families of hostages was echoed by Yair Lapid of the opposition Labor party, who wrote on X: “Disgrace! An hour of talking without saying the one sentence: ‘There will be a kidnapping deal.’”

But Netanyahu’s speech was lauded by members of his government. Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the “moving and important” speech demonstrates “the strength of alliance between the US and Israel.”

Bezalel Smotrich, the hard-right finance minister and chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, said: “Our Jewish and Israeli hearts are moved and filled with pride on this important occasion.”

After Netanyahu’s speech, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced it had retrieved the bodies of five hostages and brought them back to Israel. The bodies of Ravid Katz, Kiril Brodski, Tomer Ahimas, Oren Goldin and Maya Goren were found during an operation in the Khan Younis area on Wednesday, the IDF said, where it launched a fresh ground offensive this week.

This means that 111 hostages remain in Gaza, including 39 believed to be dead, according to data from Netanyahu’s office. There are eight dual-American citizens believed still to be captive in Gaza, three of whom have been confirmed dead. The Biden administration has not shared information about the five who may still be alive.

The recovery of the five bodies came after Israel renewed its offensive in Khan Younis. The United Nations estimates that about 150,000 people fled the area on Monday alone, after the IDF issued evacuation orders that have intensified pressure on the meager supplies of food and water, and the lack of places to seek shelter.

Absent Democrats

Despite the warm reception by lawmakers in Congress, about 80 House Democrats skipped Netanyahu’s speech, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, who instead attended a pre-scheduled trip to a sorority event in Indiana. President Joe Biden and Harris are scheduled to meet with Netanyahu at the White House Thursday.

Also among the absentees was former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who later blasted Netanyahu’s speech as “by far the worst presentation of any foreign dignitary invited and honored with the privilege of addressing the Congress of the United States.”

“Many of us who love Israel spent time today listening to Israeli citizens whose families have suffered in the wake of the October 7th Hamas terror attack and kidnappings. These families are asking for a ceasefire deal that will bring the hostages home – and we hope the Prime Minister would spend his time achieving that goal,” she said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the lone Palestinian-American congresswoman, held up a black-and-white sign during Netanyahu’s speech. One side said, “War criminal;” the other, “Guilty of genocide.”

A number of House Democrats and Republicans criticized Tlaib’s demonstration. Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer said the sign was “unfortunate” and not appropriate.

While most of the chamber rose to applaud Netanyahu as he entered, Tlaib was among three Democrats who remained seated. Sen. Chuck Schumer stood to welcome Netanyahu, did not not applaud. Sen. Mark Kelly, a potential pick for Vice President in November, did applaud the Israeli leader.

With so many Democrats skipping the speech, a number of Republicans sat on the Democratic side of the aisle.

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