Tens of thousands at weekly anti-government, hostage release rallies

Large crowds in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other locations as country braces for Iranian attack; as army limits public gatherings, protest leader says government stifling rallies

Large crowds hold an anti-government protest at the junction of Tel Aviv's Kaplan and Begin streets, April 13, 2024 (Pro-Democracy Protest Movementת @Sha_b_p)
Large crowds hold an anti-government protest at the junction of Tel Aviv's Kaplan and Begin streets, April 13, 2024 (Pro-Democracy Protest Movementת @Sha_b_p)

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities around the country Saturday with demands for the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip and new elections, as the anti-government movement maintained its momentum despite the threat of an imminent Iranian attack on the country.

Thousands congregated on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv for a weekly protest that has spearheaded activity against the government.

The rally called for early elections, the removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office and a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Police blocked off large chunks of Kaplan Street and Begin Street, as well as nearby exits of the Ayalon Highway, which protesters often block during their weekly demonstrations.

Police initially forbade demonstrators from convening at the corner of Kaplan and Begin, known by protesters as Democracy Square, saying that not enough people participated in last week’s rally to justify blocking off such a central intersection.

According to an estimate by Channel 13 news, some 45,000 people protested in Tel Aviv last Saturday night; organizers claimed 100,000 were in attendance. Five demonstrators were injured in a ramming when a driver plowed his vehicle through the protesters.

Nevertheless, police eventually ceded to protesters’ demands, allowing the demonstration to be held at its traditional location.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, April 13, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

When the rally ended protesters were to merge with an adjacent demonstration on Begin Street led by families of hostages who are calling for a deal to release the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7.

“Just before the Holiday of Freedom, with 133 hostages, men and women, still being held deep in Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza, with no freedom and no hope, a support rally for the families of the hostages will be held,” organizers said, referring to the upcoming Passover holiday.

Recent weeks have seen an increasing convergence between the protests of the families and the mass anti-government demonstrations that were a weekly event in the months before October 7. Some of the families accuse Netanyahu of blocking a deal for political reasons. Negotiations via international mediators aim to reach a temporary ceasefire during which hostages would be released, but talks so far have not reached an agreement.

However, the combined message does not have the formal backing of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, an umbrella body founded on behalf of the families of 253 people abducted from Israel during the devastating Hamas October 7 attack on the country that prompted an ongoing war in Gaza against the Palestinian terror group.

Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, accused Netanyahu Saturday of “torpedoing” a potential deal for the release of the hostages.

Speaking along with the relatives of several other hostages at a press conference on Begin Street in Tel Aviv, shortly before the two rallies began, Zangauker, who has said she is a former voter for Netanyahu’s Likud party, denounced the prime minister in notably bitter language.

“You are responsible for the abandonment of the hostages in Gaza,” she charged. “Because of you, Israeli women are being raped now in Gaza. Because of you, Israeli men are being tortured in Gaza. Because of you, hostages are being murdered in captivity. Yes, because of you.”

She added: “They could already have been at home, but you torpedoed the deal.”

A protester holds a placard as relatives of hostages held in Gaza and their supporters block traffic outside of the US Embassy Branch Office calling for the immediate release of all captives in Tel Aviv, April 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Speakers at the event cited what they called “testimonials” from two unnamed members of the Israeli hostage negotiating team, interviewed on Thursday’s Uvda investigative program, who were deeply critical of Netanyahu’s policies on the negotiations.

“Without Netanyahu, the chances of making a deal would be better,” one of the two negotiators told the program anonymously.

The families said the comments by those interviews showed “that Netanyahu is sabotaging the deal, just like we have been repeatedly saying.”

In Jerusalem, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Netanyahu’s official residence to protest for a hostage deal, using markedly confrontational language against the government that has not been seen in previous weeks.

Protesters chanted “shame” and booed Netanyahu’s name during speeches from hostage family members.

Nisan Calderon, the brother of Ofer Calderon, whom Hamas kidnapped from Nir Oz on October 7, told the crowd that the more time passes, the fewer hostages will be left alive.

“I dreamed about sitting with my brother at the Passover Seder table. Benjamin Netanyahu, you shattered this dream by blocking the deal from going through, out of your personal interests and empty slogans about total victory,” he said.

Protesters outside Prime Minister’s residence at hostages’ rally in Jerusalem on April 13, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

The protest took place in the wake of news from negotiations in Cairo that Hamas does not have 40 living hostages that meet the requirements for release, prompting fears that more hostages may be dead than previously assumed.

“The time for the hostages isn’t short, it has run out,” Hostages and Missing Families Forum organizer Tom Barkai said. “We know that they are dying there.”

“The responsibility has been on you for 190 days, and you aren’t taking the responsibility,” she continued.

It is believed that 129 hostages kidnapped on October 7 are still held in Gaza, not all of them alive.

The protests came as the country braces for a promised attack by Iran seeking revenge for two army generals killed in an air strike on Damascus earlier this month.

Iran blamed Israel for the attack and has repeatedly said it will have revenge. Israel has bolstered its defenses and on Saturday evening the IDF Home Front Command prohibited educational activities nationwide and restricted gatherings to 1,000 people, citing concern of an imminent assault.

At the main anti-government rally a protest leader said Israel’s leadership “is making cynical use of the word ‘war,’ using it to say that ‘now is not the time’ to protest.”

Anat Arbel, a criminologist and among the leaders of “The Pink Front,” one of the organizing groups of the weekly demonstration who is also an IDF reservist holding the rank of major, added that while she fights in Gaza, “this government is fighting us.”

The government’s popularity has plummeted since the beginning of the war, leading to growing calls for elections. It has faced blame over its failure to prevent the October 7 massacre, while some have charged it has fumbled when dealing with key matters relating to the conflict.

A Channel 12 poll last month found that a potential coalition led by National Unity party leader and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz would secure 69 of the Knesset’s 120 seats if elections were held today, compared to a bloc led by Netanyahu, which would win only 46 seats.

When asked who they would like to see as prime minister, more respondents said Gantz over Netanyahu, by a margin of 41% to 29%.

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