Tens of thousands of Israeli protesters call for Netanyahu’s removal

Tens of thousands of people across Israel joined the families of hostages this weekend to protest against the government and call for the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu, as the Israeli prime minister grappled with one of the most serious threats yet to his coalition.

The protesters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Caesarea and other cities on Saturday – and at a further demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday – demanded the release of those still held captive in Gaza after close to six months, and labelled Netanyahu an “obstacle to the deal”, vowing to persist until he leaves power.

“It’s been 176 days that I haven’t turned a blind eye to the thoughts and fear of what Liri and the other abductees are going through,” said Shira Albag, the mother of one hostage, Liri Albag. “The people of Israel won’t forget or forgive anyone who prevents a deal that would bring them [the hostages] back to us. After 176 days, 4,224 hours, the excuses have run out.”

Raz Ben-Ami, a former hostage freed nearly two months ago, said: “They [the hostages] won’t last there; no one can survive what they go through there, believe me.”

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Netanyahu is entering the most precarious week for his coalition since the war began as a deadline imposed by the Israeli supreme court to end the exemption for ultra-Orthodox men from military conscription is reached on Monday. The issue divides the coalition between rightwing religious and secular parties, who want to see conscription shared more equally among Jewish Israelis.

At a press conference on Sunday evening, Netanyahu said Israel would press ahead with an offensive against Rafah, where half of Gaza’s population is estimated to be sheltering, and he said a combination of military pressure and flexibility in talks would bring about the release of hostages.

The nationwide protests also coincided with reports from the Egyptian TV station Al-Qahera, known for its ties to the country’s intelligence services, indicating that negotiations for a truce between Israel and Hamas were scheduled to resume in Cairo. Hamas would not be present at the talks in Cairo, an official told Reuters news agency on Sunday, as it waited to hear from mediators on whether a new Israeli offer was on the table.

An Israeli airstrike on Sunday hit a tent camp in the courtyard of a crowded hospital in central Gaza, killing two Palestinians and injuring another 15, including journalists working nearby.

Gaza’s health ministry said on Sunday that at least 32,782 Palestinians had been killed since the start of the war, including 77 whose bodies had been brought to hospitals over the last 24 hours.

In further signs of spreading tensions within Israel, emergency services said a member of the country’s Arab minority stabbed three soldiers at a bus stop in the southern city of Beersheba on Sunday before one of them shot him dead. Hours later, a knife-wielding Palestinian was shot dead after wounding three people in a shopping mall in nearby Gan Yavne, Israeli media said.

The war was triggered in October when Hamas killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in an attack in southern Israel. The militant Islamist organisation also abducted about 250 people. Israel believes about 130 of these remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

Thousands of people gathered in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday to protest against the government and call for Netanyahu’s removal as prime minister. Yaacov Godo, whose son Tom was killed by Hamas on 7 October, said: “I will camp here in front of the Knesset until the PM resigns.”

Naama Lazimi, a member of the Knesset (MK) for the centre-left Labor party who was at the demonstration, said people had come out to protest because they recognised that the government was failing.

“The people of Israel were deep in sorrow and pain after 7 October, that is why it took so long, but when they understood there is no other option, this government is not functioning and is hurting us economically, diplomatically, in our security and in our values […] that is why people are out,” she said.

“You need to trust the people of Israel. This government will go, but the people of Israel are sane, a good people and we will win this.”

The families of hostages have urged ministers, including Netanyahu’s political rival and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, to unite with other MKs in removing Netanyahu from power, accusing the PM of deliberately sabotaging efforts to secure the release of their relatives.

“If the families knew how small the gap is, which Netanyahu is refusing to close in negotiations with Hamas, they would explode,” said Amos Malka, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence directorate who was among the speakers at the rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

Einav Zangauker, the mother of Matan Zangauker, who is still held in Gaza, said Netanyahu’s handling of the hostages situation had been “incomprehensible and criminal”.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, after you abandoned our families on 7 October, and after 176 days when you didn’t bring a deal [for their return], and because you are continually engaged in torpedoing a deal, we have realised that you are the obstacle to the deal. You are the obstacle. You are the one who stands between us and the return home of our loved ones,” she said.

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“If we don’t immediately act to move you away from the steering wheel, we won’t get to see our loved ones returning home alive and fast, and we won’t get to see our dead returned for burial in Israel […] So, today we are compelled to begin a new stage in our struggle.”

Police used water cannon to disperse protesters at the Saturday demonstrations and arrested 16 people.

In a separate protest, scores of demonstrators associated with the Brothers in Arms movement, formed of reservists, rallied in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood on Sunday, demanding the conscription of ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredi, men into the IDF.

“I believe, I believe, I believe in enlisting in the military,” the protesters chanted. Counter-protests by ultra-Orthodox men are expected this week.

As well as a deadline to end the exemption, which the Netanyahu government has sought to extend, Israel’s supreme court has also ordered an end to government subsidies from Monday for many ultra-Orthodox men who study the Torah in religious schools instead of serving in the army.

The ruling follows a series of delays by the government in presenting a proposal to the court aimed at enhancing the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men, who have historically been exempt.

As Israel’s armed forces continue to wage a nearly six-month-old war in Gaza in which 500 soldiers have been killed, legislators from the government and the opposition have voiced a stance that places the onus of heightened military service obligations on the Haredi community, rather than imposing additional duties on those already in service.

If the ultra-Orthodox parties were to leave the government, the country would be forced into new elections, with Netanyahu trailing significantly in the polls.

• This article was amended on 31 March 2024. An earlier version misquoted Shiri Albag referring to the plight of her “son” and the other abductees; Liri Albag is her daughter.