The grim milestone of 100 days of captivity for Israeli hostages in Gaza was marked by vigils in Canada

Participants at a rally in Toronto's Nathan Philips Square marking 100 days since Hamas kidnapped Israelis. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

One hundred days ago, Romi Gonen had just returned from a trip to South America and decided to attend the Nova music festival in southern Israel. As is well known since, Hamas terrorists overran the festival, killing hundreds. They shot Romi in the hand and kidnapped her to Gaza, her cousin Efrat Litvak told a crowd gathered on outside Toronto’s City Hall, in Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday, Jan. 14.

“My cousin Romi Gonen is being held captive in Gaza right now. She’s 23 years old, [a] beautiful young woman. She was at the Nova music festival. She was just going to dance, have fun. Be with her friends. Live her life.

“She wanted to see the world. She wanted to enjoy being alive.”

It has been 100 days since Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 people in Israel. Of the 240 people taken hostage, more than 130 have not been released. Rallies around the world marked the grim 100-day milestone on Sunday and called for the hostages still held in Gaza to be returned.

In Toronto, a crowd of a few hundred people gathered in subzero weather, carrying posters of the hostages and waving Israeli, Iranian, Ukrainian, and Canadian flags. A banner beside the stage read “100 Days In Hell.”

Romi and her friends tried to escape the festival in a car when she was shot and kidnapped, Litvak told the crowd, adding that one of Romi’s friends, the driver, had already died in the attack at that point, and the other was unresponsive.

Romi was on the phone with her mother during the attack, Litvak went on.

“We’ve heard videos, voice recording of Hamas coming upon her and taking her out of the car, with gunshots in the background. We’ve heard Romi saying to her mother on the phone ‘I don’t want to die. I think I’m going to die.’

“We know that Romi was shot in the hand. We know that from the hostages that were freed. Some of them were being held with Romi for a time, and they said that her fingers are changing colour. She can’t move her fingers,” Litvak said, worrying that her cousin’s infection, left untreated, could lead to her death.

When Maayan Shavit spoke, she held up a photo of her cousin Carmel Gat, 39, who remains captive in Gaza. Yarden Roman-Gat, who is married to Shavit’s cousin Alon Gat, was released in late November. Shavit’s aunt, 68-year-old Kinneret Gat, died in the attacks.

Shavit, a Toronto resident, previously told The CJN that Roman-Gat saved her three-year-old daughter by slowing down after jumping from the car of the terrorists while being shot at, and creating an opportunity for her husband, Alon, and the child to run away.

Litvak said that the hostages are running out of time.

“On behalf of my cousins in Israel, we are fighting to have Romi’s story heard,” she said. “We know that they’re not being given their medications to those who need medications… for those who are injured, they’re not being treated properly for their injuries.”

Shavit said it was more than a month before the family knew of any negotiations, later resulting in the release of her cousin Yarden.

“This is a humanitarian world crisis. Not an Israel crisis. If something like this, something so brutal and horrific, was in horror movies in theatres… we might even [have bad dreams] about that movie… but in this movie, I am still in it,” said Shavit, her words carried on the loudspeaker punctuating the crisp air.

“I have not been awakened yet, and I will not be until Carmel and the rest of the 135 hostages still in Gaza will come back home. Now.”

Maayan Shavit speaks at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Jan. 14, 2024, at an event to commemorate 100 days since Oct. 7, and call for the release of more than 130 remaining hostages, including her cousin; Shavit holds a sign with Carmel Gat’s name and image. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Salman Sima, one of the non-Jewish speakers advocating for the hostages and Israel, was part of a contingent of Iranian-flag bearing supporters. An organizer introduced him as a “former Iranian political prisoner human rights activist,” friend, and “sworn enemy of tyrants and bullies.” Sima held a sign saying Iran stands with Israel.

“You should not [have to] be a Jew to defend Israel. I am not [a] Jew but I defend Israel. You should not [have to] be a Jew to remember those innocent hostages in the hands of Hamas terrorists. You need to be human,” he said.

Other speakers included MP Marco Mendicino, MPP Laura Smith, and Toronto city councillor James Pasternak, along with author and newspaper columnist Warren Kinsella.

Pasternak criticized the lack of a wider response over the plight of the hostages.

“A hundred days may not seem like a long time when you are free, but it’s a lifetime when you are captive. This war crime has been glossed over by so many. It is totally shocking,” he said.

His office learned “the local chapter of Save the Children… had no interest, ignored our pleas, and had a website that left this crime out completely.”

He added that the Canadian Red Cross had to be “dragged kicking and screaming to do their job… collecting millions of dollars around the world and not answering our call.”

Pasternak also called out the targeting of Jewish businesses and neighbourhoods by protesters.

“Where were these mobs when 500,000 people were killed in the Syrian civil war? Where were these voices when Saudi Arabia was bombing civilian targets in Yemen? Why didn’t they take to the streets for the Uyghurs and the Tibetans? They don’t take to the streets for these crimes against humanity, because it doesn’t allow them to demonize the Jews.

“These protesters… insist that they have freedoms and constitutional rights to protest … I know hate when I see it, and these rallies are not Charter-protected.”

Pasternak concluded by referencing the Jewish prayer for hostages, reminding the crowd “we cannot describe or imagine the magnitude of their suffering.”

Mendicino told The CJN he advocates for the immediate release of the hostages to hopefully “start to see the de-escalation of the conflict and the pursuit of justice for those families.”

Supporting the release of the hostages is not a partisan issue, he said.

“All levels of government and all Canadians should unite behind the universal condemnation of Hamas for its terrorist acts, including the brutal murder of 1,200 innocent civilians, including eight Canadians, and including the ongoing detention of [the] hostages” and Hamas’ reported use of “human shields.”

Mendicino was one of a handful of MPs who participated in a solidarity mission to Israel in November. Another group of five MPs were landing in Amman, Jordan to visit that country and the West Bank the week of Jan. 15 for meetings with Palestinians, including refugees, and with progressive Israeli groups, CBC News reported

There were no counter-protests at the Toronto event on Jan. 14. A pro-Palestinian protest gathered near the Israeli consulate, at one point marching down Yonge Street, but did not disturb the rally at Nathan Phillips Square.

One day earlier, Toronto police arrested three people on the Avenue Road bridge over Highway 401. Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw had said Jan. 11 that protesters could expect to be arrested on the overpass.

In Montreal, about three dozen people demonstrated Saturday outside of Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly’s home, reported the National Post, one day after she issued a government statement rejecting the claims of South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice.

Deborah Lyons, Canada’s Envoy for Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, spoke at an evening rally in Toronto, saying “in this moment when Israel is being tested, Canada is also being tested.”

The vigil, organized by Hostages and Missing Families Forum, heard from the families of hostages and Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter.

Lyons referred to the hostages’ families who she met in Ottawa when they came to speak with elected officials and the prime minister.

“We work every day and are driven by the courage of the families and the spirit of the hostages… to ensure that appropriate law enforcement is in place here in Canada so that everyone feels safe and supported and secure and we are making progress there.

“We are driven in our work to make sure that our university campuses are places of learning and civility and not intimidation,” Lyons said to applause from the crowd. “I am speaking to 100 university presidents tomorrow afternoon and I will take your message to them.

“And we are driven by the strength and the courage of the hostage families to work to improve the social media environment so that it is no longer an area for incitement of violence.”

Lyons, a former ambassador to Israel, recalled the hours she had spent visiting with Canadian-Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver, in her home on Kibbutz Be’eri.

Silver was among those killed in the Oct. 7 attacks, although it was many weeks before her death was confirmed by Israeli authorities.

 Lyons visited the kibbutz after the attack and saw the ruins of Silver’s home.

“It was very hard to be at Kibbutz Be’eri, to be in that beautiful green paradise and to imagine what people went through on that long, long, terrible day,” she said.

A vigil organized by UnXeptable in Vancouver was also held to mark the 100 days of the hostages’ captivity.