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Protesters call for a deal to secure the release of hostages and for the Netanyahu government to be ousted through new elections. Alamy Stock Photo
Hostage exchange

'If Netanyahu won't bring the hostages home, the Israeli public will find a way to replace him'

The embattled leader is facing calls to resign, hold early elections and to prioritise the release of hostages through negotiations.

THE PROTEST MOVEMENT against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has grown in the last few months as public opinion on Israel’s strategy in the conflict in Gaza has shifted, particularly around the issue of hostages. 

The embattled leader is facing calls to resign, hold early elections and to prioritise the release of hostages through negotiations. Netanyahu has dismissed the demands, vowing to “destroy” Hamas and arguing that only military action will pressure the group into releasing the hostages.

A poll in early May found a majority of Israelis prioritised negotiating a deal that would see the return of all hostages held in Gaza. 

252 hostages were taken into Gaza on 7 October, 121 of whom remain there, including 37 the Israeli military (IDF) says are dead. In November, Hamas and Israel reached a deal for a six-day truce that led to the release of 105 hostages but subsequent talks have failed. 

Gil Dickmann of the Hostage and Missing Families Forum in Israel told The Journal the group’s demands are simple: “Bring all of the hostages home now.”

“Our protest is not against Netanyahu, but is targeted at all of the governments and decision-makers of the world and it is to make all efforts possible to bring all the hostages home as quickly as possible.” 

Last Saturday, thousands rallied on the streets of Tel Aviv after the IDF announced it had recovered the bodies of three hostages. They observed a minute’s silence in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square – the new name given to a plaza outside the city’s Museum of Art, which is near the IDF headquarters.

The square has been the site of a tented encampment as well as rallies held throughout the conflict, with over 100,000 people turning out in some cases. Some have been broken up by police using water cannons.

Another protest, calling for Netanyahu’s resignation and an early election, was held nearby on the same day. The next election is scheduled for 2026. 

tel-aviv-israel-18th-may-2024-a-protestor-holds-a-placard-saying-impeach-netanyahu-during-the-demonstration-israeli-war-cabinet-minister-benny-gantz-has-threatened-to-resign-unless-prime-minist A protestor holds a placard saying Impeach Netanyahu during the demonstration in Tel Aviv on 18 May. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Eight months into the conflict, the mood in Israel is largely one of despair, particularly in centrist and centre-left circles, where there is a widespread perception that Netanyahu is continuing to prosecute the war in service of his own political survival.

That’s according to Jerusalem-based author and journalist Nathan Thrall, who spoke to The Journal about Israeli public opinion of Netanyahu’s war strategy. 

“He rightly fears that the second it’s over there will be an accounting for the enormous failure of the army and the government on 7 October, and that he will likely lose his job,” Thrall said. 

“There’s already talk of how the government hasn’t achieved its goals and is very unlikely to achieve its goals.

“It seems to many observers that Israel is just losing. It’s losing by staying in Gaza but afraid to end it because it doesn’t want to end on a loss.

“People certainly on the centre left feel that Israel has abandoned these hostages, and that very many of them are likely dead, and that was an avoidable outcome.”

over-400-tents-were-set-on-the-road-leading-to-the-israeli-knesset-carrying-the-photos-of-the-israeli-hostages-in-hamas-captivity-thousands-of-israelis-gathered-around-the-knesset-to-protest-against Over 400 tents were set on the road leading to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem carrying the photos of the Israeli hostages in Hamas captivity. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Who are the protesters and what do they want?

The protests feature a wide cross-section of Israeli society, including the families of people taken hostage on 7 October and those who had already been rallying in defiance of the government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary last year.  

There are also ultra-orthodox Jews who oppose being conscripted into the IDF, which Netanyahu is attempting to enforce through new legislation. 

The families of hostages have been at the forefront of challenging the government since the conflict began. They want Israel to prioritise bringing home their loved ones through negotiations with Hamas.  

On 7 May, with a ceasefire deal on the table that Hamas had approved, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum appealed to countries with citizens among the captives to pressure Israel to accept what they called “a tangible opportunity for the release of the hostages”.

Israel rejected the deal and launched its long-feared assault on Rafah. 

Gil Dickmann of the Families Forum said most of them don’t really care who the prime minister is, they just want their loved ones back.

“As we see it, on 7 October Hamas murdered and kidnapped innocent people. It’s a crime against humanity and this crime against humanity is still being committed right now because the hostages are still held in the hands of this horrible terror organisation.”

Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel was taken hostage and remains in Gaza, said that from the moment the families of hostages formed the group, a majority of Israelis supported them. 

“That is very, very important to us to know that the Israeli public wants the hostages home.

“When the war started, we had assembled a majority, but it was a small majority.”

He says it has grown now that “people understand that you can’t really defeat Hamas, you can’t really destroy Hamas, while there are hostages in the hands of Hamas”.

“We now know that because we’ve been fighting for eight months now and it’s getting clear. And that’s why most of Israel will now tell you that getting the hostages back home is the most urgent thing and it’s the most important thing to do.”

As for Netanyahu specifically, Dickmann believes he may still secure the release of the remaining hostages as it’s in his political interest to do so. 

“I believe that he’s still capable of bringing the hostages home. He knows that it would be a major loss for him if he doesn’t fix the horrible, horrible tragedy that was caused while he was in office.

“If he can’t do that, or he won’t do that, well then I think that the Israeli public will find a way to replace him and I think he knows that. And I think that’s why eventually he will find the way to bring the hostages home.”

The last Dickmann’s family heard about his cousin Carmel, whose mother was killed on 7 October, came from two people who were held captive with her and were released in November. 

“They told us that she was sort of a guardian angel for them, that she practiced yoga and meditation with them and that she knows that her mother was murdered on 7 October, and she doesn’t know anything else about the rest of the family.

“We haven’t heard anything yet but we have all the reasons to believe that Carmel is still alive. And we’re still waiting to see her alive and well soon, very, very soon. And we’re not going to stop until we do.”

The families are not alone in their frustration at the government’s approach. 

The head of the IDF’s Missing and Captive Soldiers division, Nitzan Alon, reportedly told officers who liaise with the families that “with this government lineup, there won’t be a deal”. 

file-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-center-wears-a-protective-vest-and-helmet-as-he-receives-a-security-briefing-with-commanders-and-soldiers-in-the-northern-gaza-strip-on-monday-dec Netanyahu (centre) visiting IDF troops in northern Gaza in December. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Who else is protesting and why? 

Prior to the attack in October and the retaliatory campaign that followed, Netanyahu already had plenty of critics in Israel. Some of those grievances were put to the side due to the war but the divisions have re-emerged as the conflict has raged on. 

He remains at the centre of a corruption trial that began in 2020 and has been delayed at different times due to Covid-19 and the current conflict. If convicted, he could be forced to vacate the premiership. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing. 

On top of the corruption allegations, Netanyahu’s government faced enormous protests over attempts to reform the country’s judiciary. Many have seen these reforms as an attempt to hamstring the courts in order to give himself more power and get himself off the hook in the corruption trial. Netanyahu rejects these characterisations. 

The first phase of the controversial legislation passed in July last year. It removed the power of the courts, including the Supreme Court, to strike down government decisions.

How has Netanyahu responded? 

Netanyahu has dismissed calls for his resignation and said that holding an election while the conflict is ongoing would only divide Israelis. He has also called demands for a ceasefire with Hamas “delusional”. 

“The last thing we need right now are elections and dealing with elections, since it will immediately divide us,” he said in response to protests in February. “We need unity right now.”

israel-22nd-mar-2024-secretary-antony-j-blinken-meets-with-benny-gantz-in-tel-aviv-israel-march-22-2024-photo-by-chuck-kennedystate-department-via-credit-sipa-usalamy-live-news Benny Gantz (right) meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What’s the significance of these protests? 

Recent polling shows that Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose out marginally to Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party if elections were held tomorrow, but Netanyahu is slightly more popular than Gantz. Likud had been trailing in the polls but received a bump following the start of the assault on Rafah. 

Recently, Gantz – a former IDF general and member of the War Cabinet – threatened to resign over Netanyahu’s lack of a post-war plan. Gantz’s party this week submitted a bill to dissolve the Knesset and prompt new elections, joining another War Cabinet member, Gadi Eisenkot, who said Netanyahu was “pushing false delusions” about a military victory. 

As the political pressure mounts at home, Netanyahu is also facing challenges from abroad.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has requested arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defence minister Yoav Gallant, along with three Hamas leaders.  

Politicians in the EU and the US have singled out Netanyahu, rather than Israel, for criticism in recent months. US senator Chuck Schumer, a staunch Israel supporter, called him “an obstacle to peace” in March.

Ultimately though, Netanyahu will be concerned with the opinion of just one Western leader: Joe Biden. 

 

Need more information on what is happening in Israel and Palestine? Check out our new FactCheck Knowledge Bank for essential reads and guides to navigating the news online.

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