Israel sees largest anti-government protest since Hamas war began

People take part in a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government  in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
People take part in a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 31, 2024. Copyright Leo Correa/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Leo Correa/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
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Nearly six months of conflict have renewed divisions over the leadership of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Tens of thousands of Israelis staged the largest anti-government protest since the country went to war with Hamas in October on Sunday.

Protesters in central Jerusalem urged the government to reach a ceasefire deal to free dozens of hostages held in Gaza by Palestinian militants and to hold early elections.

Israeli society was broadly united immediately after 7 October, when Hamas killed some 1,200 people during a cross-border attack and took 250 others hostage. 

Nearly six months of conflict have renewed divisions over the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however. 

Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and bring all the hostages home, yet those goals have been elusive. While Hamas has suffered heavy losses, it remains intact.

Roughly half the hostages in Gaza were released during a weeklong ceasefire in November. But attempts by international mediators to bring home the remaining hostages have failed. 

Hostages' families believe time is running out, and they are getting more vocal about their displeasure with Netanyahu.

“We believe that no hostages will come back with this government because they’re busy putting sticks in the wheels of negotiations for the hostages,” said Boaz Atzili, whose cousin, Aviv Atzili and his wife, Liat, were kidnapped on 7 October. Liat was released but Aviv was killed, and his body is in Gaza.

'Netanyahu is only working in his private interests'

Protesters blame Netanyahu for the failures of 7 October and say deep political divisions over his attempted judicial overhaul last year weakened Israel ahead of the attack. Some accuse him of damaging relations with the United States, the country’s most important ally.

Netanyahu is also facing a litany of corruption charges which are slowly making their way through the courts. 

Critics say his decisions appear to be focused on political survival over the national interest. 

Opinion polls show Netanyahu and his coalition trailing far behind their rivals if elections were held today.

Unless his governing coalition falls apart sooner, Netanyahu won't face elections until the spring of 2026.

Protest organisers vowed to continue demonstrating for several days. They urged the government to hold new elections nearly two years ahead of schedule. 

Netanyahu, in a nationally televised speech before undergoing hernia surgery later Sunday, said he understood families' pain. 

But he said calling new elections - in what he described as a moment before victory - would paralyse Israel for six to eight months and stall the hostage talks. 

Netanyahu’s governing coalition appears to remain firmly intact, for now.

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