Over 20,000 protesters gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday demanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation over his handling of the recent Gaza conflict, as well as calling for early elections. The protesters accuse Netanyahu of failing to secure the release of two Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and criticize his reluctance to end the Gaza war.
Protesters March Through Tel Aviv for Anti-War Rally
Thousands marched through the streets of Tel Aviv in a rare anti-war protest calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Many Israelis are critical of Netanyahu for not working hard enough to end the bloody conflict that left over 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
The protest brought together a diverse coalition of Jewish and Arab activists united against the war. Among their demands were an “immediate ceasefire” and “recognizing the rights of Palestinians.”
Quotes from protesters:
"Too much innocent blood has been spilled. We need our leaders to step up right now and find a peaceful solution," said Rachel Cohen, a Jewish protester.
"My family lives in Gaza and fears for their lives every day. The killing has to stop," said Jamal Abu, an Arab Israeli protester.
Protest organizer Daniel Roth called it a “historic show of solidarity between Arabs and Jews calling for peace.” He hopes this will pressure the government to change course and “pursue open and honest dialogue with Palestinians.”
The demonstration remained peaceful as protesters marched from Rabin Square to Netanyahu’s residence. Police kept a close watch but did not interfere. Officials reversed an earlier decision to restrict the rally after the Supreme Court ruled that the “right to protest is fundamental.”
Protesters Demand Release of Israeli Hostages in Gaza
Many at Saturday’s Tel Aviv protest called for the immediate release of two Israeli civilians held captive by Hamas in Gaza. Demonstrators chanted “bring back our sons” in reference to the hostages.
The two men are believed to have entered Gaza separately in recent months for unknown reasons. Hamas issued a video over a week ago showing them alive and confirming they were in custody.
Timeline of the hostage situation:
- Avera Mangistu illegally crosses Gaza border & detained by Hamas
January 3, 2024:
- Second Israeli man, Hisham al-Sayed, enters Gaza & captured
January 15, 2024:
- Hamas releases proof-of-life video showing two hostages
January 20, 2024:
- Protesters demand government secure release of both hostages
Netanyahu’s rivals criticize him for not prioritizing the release of civilians. The government supposedly halted indirect negotiations after the recent fighting erupted.
Family members of the hostages spoke at the Tel Aviv demonstration pleading for intervention. Avera’s brother Ilan said, “My brother suffers from mental illness – he urgently needs medication that Hamas refuses to provide.” He called Netanyahu’s lack of action “unforgivable.”
Jewish and Arab Activists Unite for Joint Peace Rally
In a rare show of solidarity, thousands of Jews and Arabs gathered together at a peace rally in the northern coastal city of Haifa. Activists carried signs in both Hebrew and Arabic with messages like “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
Speakers representing both sides of the conflict addressed the emotionally-charged crowd. Ali Mohammed, an Arab neighborhood representative, drew applause when he declared “violence will only breed more violence. The time has come for cooperation and understanding.”
Jewish university student Sarah Levy gave an impassioned speech on stage alongside her Arab peers. She spoke of the destructive impact the long conflict has had on prospects for peace between the two communities.
Excerpt from Sarah Levy's speech:
"It breaks my heart to see the hatred and bloodshed happening right now, a mere hour from my home. Our shared humanity calls on us to speak in one voice - enough! This endless cycle of revenge must come to an end. Together we can heal these divisions - what unites us is far stronger than what drives us apart."
The rally concluded with participants lighting candles and observing a moment of silence for all victims of the conflict. Organizers plan to hold more such demonstrations across the country in the coming weeks.
Set Elections Now, Say Protesters
A common theme among Saturday’s protests was the call for early elections to replace Netanyahu’s fragile governing coalition. His razor-thin parliamentary majority took power last December and has remained bitterly divided ever since.
Many express outrage over his partnership with the far-right Religious Zionism party. He gave them control over sensitive legal and settlement policies in a desperate bid to stay in office. Their leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is known for anti-Arab extremism.
Signs seen at the rally targeting Netanyahu's Religious Zionism allies:
"Don't let racists rule!"
"Bibi in bed with fascists and homophobes"
"This unholy coalition does NOT represent us!"
Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government “has lost the people’s trust. Dragging us into an unwanted war without a clear exit strategy was the final straw.” He promises if elected to “restore dignity at home and credibility abroad” for Israel.
What Comes Next?
While the protests seem unlikely to immediately threaten Netanyahu’s hold on power, they reveal growing discontent on multiple fronts. If demonstrations continue gathering momentum, calls for early elections may become too loud to ignore.
However, Netanyahu will likely resist stepping aside voluntarily after working so hard to secure his comeback. He could point to the Gaza ceasefire and sign it was premature to judge his war leadership.
The Yesh Atid centrist party leads comfortably in the latest election polls. But failure to unite with other opposition groups risks splitting the anti-Netanyahu vote. All agree the top priority is creating a viable alternative to his unpopular government.
As for the conflict underlying these protests, there is no end in sight after decades of failed peace initiatives. The recent devastating violence serves as another reminder of tensions almost certain to eventually flare up again.
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