Thousands protest in Israel against Netanyahu over hostages held in Gaza


Demonstrators call for deal to bring hostages home as well as elections and PM’s resignation as Israeli troops advance on Rafah

Thousands of Israelis joined protests over the weekend calling for a deal to bring home hostages still held in Gaza by Hamas, early elections and the immediate resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.

The large protests came amid renewed fighting in Gaza, where Israeli troops have advanced for the first time towards the centre of Rafah, the territory’s southernmost city, and launched operations in several northern areas where fierce clashes have previously taken place.

There have been weekly protests in Israel since soon after the beginning of the war last October, which was triggered by Hamas’s attack into Israel in which 1,200 died, mainly civilians, and about 250 were taken hostage. Support for the war remains strong but there is fierce criticism of Netanyahu’s coalition government, which includes far-right ministers.

In the northern city of Haifa, protesters marched behind a banner reading “May every Israeli parent remember they put their child’s life in the hands of Netanyahu, who fails them”, while hundreds gathered outside the prime minister’s private home in Caesarea, 25 miles (40km) away.

Hopes of a ceasefire deal that would have freed at least some of the 132 hostages thought to be held in Gaza rose briefly last week when Hamas accepted a deal proposed by mediators, but were dashed when Netanyahu rejected the terms.

Family members of the hostages, carrying pictures of their loved ones, joined large protests in Tel Aviv.

Naama Weinberg, whose cousin Itai Svirsky was abducted and killed in captivity, according to Israeli authorities, told protesters that “even those who managed to survive this long will no longer be among the living”. Officials say between 30 and 50 of the hostages may now be dead.

The French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy spoke too, saying the survival of a hostage was “the highest form of existence”.

Hamas said on Saturday that the British-Israeli hostage Nadav Popplewell had died after being wounded in an Israeli airstrike a month ago, but provided no evidence. The Israeli military did not offer any comment.

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, police dispersed anti-government protesters – some waving Israeli flags – with water cannon and arrested several people. The major highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was blocked for about an hour. Other protests took place across Israel.

Though hostage campaigners and anti-government protests often share objectives, they remain separate movements. Some relatives of hostages favour a tough stance and support the government – a view with widespread backing among Jewish Israelis, polls show.

Prof Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “The very fact that Netanyahu and some of his fans have made [the hostage crisis] something we argue about is unbearable. This is the most basic commitment a state has to its citizens. What happened on October 7 undermined the basic assumptions of many Israelis. Where was the army? Where was the state?”

The protests came ahead of Memorial Day in Israel, which commemorates casualties of the country’s wars, including soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks.

The Times of Israel described a “dark year”, with the combined toll of the October attacks and Israel’s subsequent military losses in the war in Gaza the highest for 50 years.

“Too many people were killed on that day because of a colossal misjudgment,” said Ruby Chen, whose son, Itay, was killed in the Hamas attack in October. “People who made the misjudgment need to pay, from the prime minister down.”

Many Israelis say no one has taken responsibility for the failures that allowed militants to break through Gaza’s $1.1bn perimeter fence and hunt down civilians in their homes or at a music festival for hours before the army arrived in sufficient strength to protect survivors.

A small number of senior military and intelligence leaders have resigned but Netanyahu has stopped short of accepting responsibility, saying he will answer tough questions after the war.

In a recent poll in Ma’ariv newspaper, more than half of respondents said Netanyahu, who could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted in ongoing corruption trials, had prioritised his own political survival over the fate of the hostages. However, 44% said Netanyahu was right to reject the most recent ceasefire deal with Hamas, against 41% who favoured an agreement.

Some families have asked that ministers do not attend Memorial Day ceremonies, which will take place at military cemeteries across the country on Sunday and Monday.

“This is an event that the failing leadership and the failing security apparatus led us to. Respect the families’ request: Don’t come,” Eyal Eshel, whose daughter, Roni, was killed at an army base stormed by Hamas militants in October, told Israeli Channel 12.

The official ceremony on Monday night marking the beginning of Independence Day celebrations has been toned down. In a break with tradition, the ceremony will be pre-recorded without a live audience, and there will be no fireworks.

Be’eri, a kibbutz close to Gaza which suffered heavy losses in the October attack, refused an invitation to send its security team to light a torch at the ceremony because the “torch ceremony will be about heroism only, without referring to the tragedy and neglect that meant [whole communities] were left to their fate by the state”.

The war in Gaza has lasted longer than many expected, and the decisive victory over Hamas that Netanyahu has repeatedly promised appears elusive. More than 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the conflict, nearly 2 million have been displaced and much of Gaza has been devastated. Eighty hostages were released in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners during a shortlived ceasefire in November.

The Guardian