Israelis protest against Netanyahu in Jerusalem amid mounting anti-government anger

Relatives of hostages detained in Gaza gathered outside the Knesset demanding his resignation

Anti-government protests held in Jerusalem

Anti-government protests held in Jerusalem
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Tens of thousands of people rallied against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government on Sunday in what has been described as the largest protest since the Gaza war began in October.

Anti-government protesters and relatives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza united outside the Knesset building to call for his resignation, a day after hostage families said they were stepping up action against Mr Netanyahu.

Demonstrators also marched to Mr Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence and blocked entrances to the city, where protest groups have erected a tent city outside parliament.

Local media said the demonstration was the largest anti-government rally since the war began in October.

Participants chanted “elections now” and called for the Knesset to abandon a spring break time in the midst of growing political turmoil in the country.

“The military reservists don't get to take break time. The hostages don't get to take break time. You the citizens don't get to take break time. But somehow they can?” Opposition leader Yair Lapid was quoted by Haaretz as saying.

“In what country in the world are such people still in office after what happened to us?

Protesters also took aim at a divisive military exemption granted to the Ultra-Orthodox, the extension of which has threatened to topple Mr Netanyahu's fragile government.

Mr Netanyahu filed a last-minute deferment on the extension ahead of its March 31 deadline as the issue continues to divide his cabinet.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz has threatened to quit the government if the extension is renewed, describing it as a “serious moral failure”.

According to army figures, a record 66,000 Ultra-Orthodox men were exempted from mandatory military service over the past year.

The issue, long a point of contention in Israel, came to a head amid Israel's continued war in Gaza and a rising military death toll, with 600 soldiers confirmed killed since October 7.

Protests also continued in Tel Aviv, where relatives of hostages blocked a major motorway and continued calls for a ceasefire deal.

Mr Netanyahu on Sunday claimed Israel has “shown flexibility” in its negotiations, saying Hamas is “hardening” its positions.

It came hours after relatives of Gaza captives accused Mr Netanyahu of repeatedly “torpedoing” chances of a hostage release deal.

“We have all witnessed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal political interests repeatedly drive his decision making. We see how his concern for the stability of his coalition trumps his clear duty and responsibility – saving the lives of Israeli citizens, bringing back our loved ones from captivity,” they said during a ceasefire rally in Tel Aviv.

The group said it would pursue Mr Netanyahu “relentlessly” until he is removed from power.

“With the support of the public, we will not back down until you relinquish your seat of power, and make way for a leader who can and will return our loved ones from captivity in Gaza,” they added.

Protesters optimistic despite challenges

Organisers behind the weekend's protests hope they will open a chapter of mass anger that brings about the downfall of Mr Netanyahu’s government.

They face a difficult challenge against a coalition whose far-right factions are determined to stay in power and make the most of an opportunity to change Israel radically.

But protest leaders received a boost this week when the families of hostages being held in Gaza called for Israelis to "take to the streets", directly challenging the government over the most emotive current issue for Israelis: the plight of captives in Gaza.

Lital Shochat, an organiser of one of the movement’s largest protest blocs, has described the call by hostage families as a “gong to say [to anti-government Israelis] ‘now is the time’ to act”.

Protest leaders, many of whom participated in the pre-October 7 mass demonstrations over government plans to reform Israel’s judiciary, hope similar energy can be revived to force elections.

“After October 7, all protesting stopped instantly and many of the protest organisations – made up of idealistic, Zionist people who love their country – immediately turned to providing aid to those in need,” Ms Shochat said.

“But a few weeks after October 7, some bereaved families approached us about a lack of engagement from the government. They wanted to protest, so asked for our help. It didn’t take long for many Israelis to start saying that what the government was doing was making the existing disaster worse.”

Anti-government activists hope this anger, initially expressed quietly, is now so raw that it can end the career of Mr Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history.

But it will not be easy. Calling elections in Israel is complex and while there is widespread mistrust of the government, those against it do not agree on whether an election should be held during wartime.

Many Israelis are also busy contending with more basic issues, said Ms Shochat.

“Some people are still in an existential daily fight for livelihoods. Many are displaced, mourning or are in reserve duty.”

Despite the challenges, protest leaders maintain hope that Mr Netanyahu's days in office are numbered.

"The fact that Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for more or less the past 15 years means that if anyone is responsible for Israel’s security, it’s him,” said Ms Shochat.

“He is trying to blame citizens acting in a non-violent, legal and democratic way against a government that has failed.

"After the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu himself was criticising [then prime minister] Ehud Olmert, saying after such a failure, he had no right to be in government and that there should be elections.

"What has changed, Mr Netanyahu? Why can’t you stick to the principles you preached in the past?”

Updated: April 01, 2024, 2:24 PM