ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Among first major anti-government protests since Oct. 7

Protesters in Tel Aviv take aim at Netanyahu government after 12 weeks of war

Demonstrators express strong positions against ruling coalition and handling of war against Hamas, as some call for new elections despite lack of enthusiasm for other candidates

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Soberly and solemnly, hundreds of protesters poured into Habima Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demonstrate against the government and call for immediate elections over the management of the ongoing war in Gaza and the failure so far to secure the release of the remaining hostages.

In one of the first major, explicitly anti-government protests since the war began on October 7, demonstrators for “elections now” flocked to the central Tel Aviv square many bearing banners that were highly antagonistic toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline coalition, as well as the war in Gaza.

“The cry of mothers: Get our soldiers out of Gaza now,” read one banner, while another called for “A diplomatic agreement.” Yet another protester held a banner declaring “Israel will not survive if we don’t bring him down.”

Speaking at a press briefing Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was possible “movement” toward a new agreement for the release of the remaining hostages but also stressed that he doesn’t “want to raise exaggerated expectations.”

“Hamas has issued all kinds of ultimatums that we’ve not accepted,” he said, noting that if a viable deal is possible, “it will be carried out.”

Right now, he added carefully, “We see a possibility, maybe, for movement.”

Down the road from Habima, families and other supporters gathered for an 11th straight week at the renamed Hostages’ Square outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum to call for the release of those being held in Gaza. Despite increasingly vocal criticism of the government over the lack of an agreement for their release, organizers have taken pains to keep the demonstrations apolitical.

A protest at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square calling for fresh elections to be held, December 30, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 23 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

At Saturday’s protest in Tel Aviv, numerous demonstrators brought Israeli flags from the anti-judicial overhaul movement of the pre-October 7 era, lending the demonstration a distinct anti-government feel that has been absent from most major demonstrations since the atrocities committed by Hamas almost three months ago.

Guy Ginat, a protester from Rehovot, held a banner in English with the words “You bring us death and say ‘that’s life,’” referencing a remark made by  Netanyahu last month after an an armed civilian who stopped a deadly terror attack in Jerusalem was mistakenly shot dead by a soldier.

“We need to eliminate this regime, it’s taking us to a very undemocratic place, somewhere my children and I do not have a place in, if it continues like this,” said Ginat.

Rehovot resident Guy Ginat (left) at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. Ginat said the country was becoming undemocratic under the current government and came to demand immediate elections, December 30, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/The Times of Israel)

“There are three physical fronts in this war, in Gaza, in the north with Hezbollah, and in the West Bank. The fourth front, the political arena, is the existential front,” he asserted.

Despite demanding immediate elections, Ginat had no enthusiasm for the political leaders who might be able to defeat the current coalition, but expressed optimism that once a new election is called, more promising candidates for his vision of the country might come forward.

And he also expressed confidence that the current coalition would be defeated in any upcoming election, and that “a more liberal government which will preserve the character of the country as a liberal state” would replace the current one.

The protest was organized by several groups, including the anti-government protest organization Hofshi Israel as well as some bereaved families from the current war.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Among the speakers were Ofri Zur, whose brother Amir Zur was killed during the Hamas-led assault on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and Maj. Gen. (res.) Guy Tzur, the former head of the IDF Southern Command, while the event was hosted by Gal Pihovitz, the mother of a combat soldier currently fighting in Gaza.

A central exhibition at Habima Square commemorated the victims of the October 7 atrocities and said, “Not in vain, we promise.”

Despite the fact that many of the protesters in the heart of liberal, progressive Tel Aviv did not appear particularly enthusiastic about any potential winners of the election they were calling for, those who spoke with this reporter nevertheless felt that the likely winners would be an improvement on the current government.

“We needed to switch leadership already yesterday, our economy is on the slide, so is our security and our diplomatic standing. We won’t survive till the next election if it takes three more years,” said Gili Keshet, a Tel Aviv resident.

Hundreds of demonstrators converge on Tel Aviv’s Habima square to protest against the government and call for new elections, December 30, 2023. (Amiram Lukach)

Another protester, Rotem Telem, said she came to the demonstration out of a profound sense of “despair and fear” over the situation in the country, specifically the ongoing deaths of Israelis soldiers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

“People on both sides are dying for no purpose. I’m afraid they’re telling us we’re winning a war which we lost on October 7,” she said.

“We can’t win this war. You can’t change paradigms with war. Children dying is not a policy,” continued Telem, also a Tel Aviv resident.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference, December 30, 2023 (GPO screenshot)

She said she wanted immediate elections to be held, even in wartime, but said she doesn’t actually support any of the likely candidates who might lead a new government.

“Gantz isn’t a solution, Lapid is too right-wing, but they would at least be able to renew the proper functioning of government departments which have been gutted by Netanyahu, and restore the state so we can continue onwards, she said.

“Bibi is not fit for office. He can’t make decisions based on the good of the country. His narrow interest is personal survival and that is what is driving his decisions. Anyone else would be better,” she said.

Major anti-government demonstrations that became a fixture in the months preceding October 7 halted immediately with the outbreak of the war, as many activist groups shifted to aid and civil defense activities.

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, December 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The weeks since have still seen some relatively small anti-government protests, including one in Jerusalem in early November that drew hundreds.

Demonstrations were also held last week in Tel Aviv, Caesarea, Karkur and elsewhere.

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