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Israeli protesters demand Gaza truce

TEL AVIV — Israeli protesters marched through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem chanting “we will not give up” on Sunday, the second consecutive day of stepped-up pressure for a deal to free hostages in Gaza.

As the war entered into its 10th month, the demonstrators called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure a truce and hostage-release deal or step down.

The nationwide “disruption day” began at 6.29am to correspond with the start of Hamas’s Oct 7 attack that triggered the war.

In Israel’s two largest cities, demonstrators blocked roads, with tens of thousands stopping traffic along major intersections and a highway in central Tel Aviv where police used water canon to disperse them.

Among the protesters, many of whom are related to the hostages, there was a sense the government had deserted those still held in Gaza by Palestinian fighters Hamas.

Israel says 116 people remain captive, including 42 the military says are dead.

“The government doesn’t care what the people think, and they don’t do anything to bring back our sisters and brothers from Gaza,” said Orly Nativ, 57, who joined the flag-wielding demonstrators in Tel Aviv.

“Enough is enough.”

Many accuse Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, of not doing more to secure a truce as a matter of political survival. Two far-right members of his cabinet have threatened to resign if a deal was struck.

“He knows if he ends the war, his government will fall,” said Nurit Meiri, 50, a social worker in Jerusalem.

She carried an Israeli flag and wore a “bring them home” t-shirt to the raucous march on the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem, which was tailed by a group of young religious men shouting “traitor.”

Meiri’s cousin was murdered on Oct 7 while visiting family, and her son soon starts his mandatory military service.

“For what? A prime minister who will do anything to stay in power?” she asked as protesters behind her chanted “choose life.”

War ‘a failure’

Large protests have taken place across Israel’s commercial hub every Saturday night for months, but have recently swelled and become more frequent.

By 9pm on Saturday, protest organisers estimated around 176,000 people had filled a Tel Aviv intersection they call “Democracy Square”. That would make it one of the biggest demonstrations since the war began.

Earlier, at a separate rally for the hostages, relatives made emotional appeals for a deal to bring home their missing loved ones.

Interspersed between art exhibitions evoking the missing men, women and children and tents selling merchandise to support the families, some in the crowd held up signs saying refusing a deal would be tantamount to death.

“Our message to the government is very simple. There is a deal on the table. Take it,” said Yehuda Cohen, father of kidnapped soldier Nimrod Cohen.

Others were more morose.

“This war is a failure,” said Inbar R., a 27-year-old tech worker who did not want to give her full last name.

“The only thing it has done is to make the world hate us.”

The protests come as indirect truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas have regained momentum after months of failed diplomacy.

Netanyahu has consistently opposed any truce deal that would leave Hamas with the ability to fight or govern.

The Oct 7 attack resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Of the 251 hostages seized by fighters on that day, Israeli forces have rescued seven of them alive. Another 105 including 80 Israelis were freed during the war’s only truce, which lasted one week in November.

In response to the Oct 7 attack, Israel’s military offensive has killed at least 38,153 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. — AFP