At protests, coalition implored to reach hostage deal, bashed for not tackling Hezbollah

12 arrested in Tel Aviv as tens of thousands rally to urge a deal with Hamas, demand elections, decry Haredi draft exemptions, and fume at attacks on the north

A protester is detained during protests calling for a hostage deal and denouncing the government, in Tel Aviv, on June 15, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
A protester is detained during protests calling for a hostage deal and denouncing the government, in Tel Aviv, on June 15, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Police arrested 12 demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Saturday night at the tail end of hours of protests in support of a hostage deal and against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition’s policies.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in Tel Aviv, and numerous protests were held around the country, with some speakers declaring that complete victory over Hamas is impossible and therefore the war should be ended to secure the hostages’ release.

The weekly protests took place against the backdrop of deadlocked negotiations on a hostage-ceasefire deal with Hamas, hours after eight IDF troops were killed fighting in southern Gaza’s Rafah, and amid government moves toward passing a bill that aims to maintain the broad exemption of Haredi men from military service.

Some protesters on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street also burned tents to highlight what they saw as government inaction in the face of relentless Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel, while a representative of the hostage families — at a rally held by the  Hostages and Missing Families Forum a few blocks away — asserted that Israel will never be able to fully win the war against Hamas.

The protesters on Kaplan Street burned the tents to signify the tens of thousands of acres of land that have been burned in daily Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel.

They skirmished with police soon after setting the fires, and there were also skirmishes when demonstrators sought to block the city’s main Ayalon Highway.

Protesters burn tents during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on June 15, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Police said they arrested 12 people for alleged violations of public order, including blocking roads and demonstrating beyond the permitted time period.

Police on horseback disperse protesters during a rally to call for a hostage deal and denouncing the government, in Tel Aviv, on June 15, 2024 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Police were filmed arresting a photographer for the Haaretz daily, Itay Ron, despite passersby telling the officers that he is a journalist. According to Hebrew media reports, he was released an hour later.

Labor MKs Gilad Kariv and Na’ama Lazimi were present at the scene of one arrest, where they were met with jeers from right-wing demonstrators.

National Unity MK Benny Gantz also attended a demonstration, his first since withdrawing his National Unity party from the government last Sunday, at Sha’ar Hanegev near Gaza, calling for the return of the hostages.

National Unity chair Benny Gantz attends a hostage deal rally along with MK Alon Schuster at the Sha’ar HaNegev Intersection in southern Israel, June 15, 2024. (Courtesy)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid addressed the anti-government demonstrators on Kaplan, deriding the recent Knesset decision to revive a bill that, if passed, would lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for yeshiva students from 26 to 21.

Lapid said the controversial bill discriminates “between the blood of some and of others” and “tears the country apart even more.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid attends a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, June 15, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Rescued hostage pleads: ‘Make a deal’

In Hostages Square, a few blocks away from the Kaplan protest, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum took an unusually critical position towards the Israel-Hamas war, as one of the spokespeople emceeing its weekly rally told the crowd that Israel will never achieve Netanyahu’s promised total victory against Hamas.

“We all know the heavy losses that the Americans had in Vietnam and even the Germans did not snuff out the partisans,” Rami Beja told the thousands who gathered in Hostages Square. “Hamas are like cockroaches: spray pesticides on them and they will keep returning. We need to strike them, but don’t tell me we can win. You can’t win here entirely.”

In a recorded message, rescue hostage Andrey Kozlov said he and the other three hostages rescued by Israeli troops from Hamas on June 8 saw images from weekly rallies for their return while in captivity.

“Nearly every Saturday night they showed us rallies from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I didn’t count how many people were there but we saw many,” Kozlov said. “I remember how Almog [Meir Jan] saw his picture for the first time [on a poster at the rally] and it was like a breath of fresh air for him. You put in so much effort and time into getting us back home and it gave me hope. You are heroes.”

He called on the government to “make a deal” with Hamas, which is demanding a permanent ceasefire, among other demands, as a prerequisite for returning the 120 hostages still held in Gaza, many of whom are not alive.

Rotem Calderon, whose father Ofer is held hostage in Gaza, said at the rally: “The people of Israel died on October 7 and will be revived only when everyone is back. A deal now. Love you Dad.”

And Michal Lubnov, whose husband Alex is presumed to be held hostage, noted that Father’s Day will be celebrated on June 21 and that the rally is focused on men and fathers in captivity in Gaza.

Michal Lubnov speaks in Hostages Square, Tel Aviv, June 15, 2024 (Paulina Patimer / Hostages Families Forum)

“It’s Father’s Day and Alex doesn’t even know he has a boy,” she said, holding back tears. She gave birth in February to the couple’s second child, Kai, and their firstborn, who is two-and-a-half years old, is potty trained and learning to ride a bicycle, she added, listing moments that her husband has missed.

Earlier on Saturday evening, a number of hostage families demanding an end to the war as part of a hostage deal addressed the media at their routine spot near the Begin Gate of the IDF’s Kirya Headquarters, voicing similar sentiments.

Ayala Metzger, whose father-in-law Yoram’s body is held by Hamas, warned of an additional major war in the north as Hezbollah relentlessly fires on northern Israel.

“The continuation of the war will bring a continuation of the loss of life, among the abducted soldiers and civilians. A deal means security. A deal will bring security on all fronts,” argued Metzger.

Relatives of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference calling for a hostage deal in Tel Aviv on June 15, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

By contrast on Saturday evening, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for a continuation of the fighting in Gaza after the eight soldiers were killed in Rafah, stating that “we are in a war for our existence.”

“Our sons fell so that we would win and so that this generation could live in a safe Jewish state,” he wrote on X, declaring that “the heavy price of war obliges us to continue until the complete destruction of the enemy.”

Joint protests in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, in light of the late ending of the Sabbath, the Jerusalem branch of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum split the stage with the anti-government protest group “Safeguarding our Shared Home,” resulting in one large, unified protest in Paris Square, calling for both a hostage deal and the toppling of Netanyahu’s government.

Protesters chanted, “No to a Kahanist government” and “he who abandoned, must bring them [the hostages] back!” while awaiting speeches to begin onstage.

Tom Barkai, an organizer with the Jerusalem Hostages and Missing Families Forum, accused Netanyahu of torpedoing a prospective hostage deal.

“A true leader puts his political interests aside to bring an immediate deal,” she said.

Anti-government activist Efi Shoham also voiced his frustration with the Haredi conscription law, telling the crowd that he “cannot sleep at night” since October 7, as many of his children continue to serve as reservists in the ongoing war.

Shoham sharply criticized the bill enabling ongoing exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students, saying that if passed, it would force his sons and their friends to serve more time in the army.

“They will do more years of reserve duty, and will do more days of reserve duty each year because there is no other choice,” he said.

Attorney Roni Moalem, whose daughter Naama was murdered by Hamas at the Supernova rave massacre, tore into Netanyahu in his speech, saying that he is “not worthy to be a leader, and certainly not prime minister.”

Attorney Roni Moalem, a bereaved father who lost his daughter in the Nova rave massacre on October 7, speaks to crowd of anti-government protesters on June 15, 2024. (Courtesy of Safeguarding our Shared Home)

Moalem accused the premier of abandoning his daughter and the others murdered on October 7, saying he continues to serve as prime minister “only for his son, his wife and 35 corrupt ministers” in the current government.

The protest dispersed peacefully in Jerusalem.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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