Gaza War: Israeli Protesters Demand Return of Hostages, Early Elections

Thousands of people demonstrated in central Tel Aviv on Saturday, calling for the return of hostages held in Gaza and early elections to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The demonstrators marched through the city’s Habima Square, a frequent protest site, with some carrying signs calling Netanyahu “the face of evil” and demanding “elections now”.

Protesters demanding the return of hostages also gathered in Haifa and outside the premier’s Jerusalem residence.

Netanyahu is under intense pressure to secure the return of the hostages seized by Hamas on October 7, with the militant group on Monday announcing the deaths of two more of its captives.

Death toll in the besieged enclave nears 25,000.

Avi Lulu Shamriz, the father of Alon Shamriz, a hostage mistakenly killed by Israeli troops earlier in the war, said Netanyahu’s war cabinet was heading for disaster.

“The way we’re going, all the hostages are going to die. It’s not too late to free them,” he said.

In a briefing on Saturday evening, military spokesman Daniel Hagari said troops had found a tunnel in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip where some hostages had been kept.

“We found evidence indicating the presence of hostages,” he said. This evidence included paintings, including by a five-year-old captive.

He said “about 20 hostages” had been held in the tunnel at different times “in difficult conditions without daylight… with little oxygen and terrible humidity”.

Soldiers entered the tunnel where they encountered militants and fought a battle in which “the terrorists were eliminated”, Hagari said.

Netanyahu’s coalition has increasingly come under attack from rival politicians and critics over his handling of the war.

Another protester, Yael Niv, said Israel desperately needed a new government to correct the country’s course.

The 50-year-old said “the messianic elements in our government” were a major danger to Israel, as she handed out stickers urging the return of the hostages.

“Eliminating Hamas is not going to happen through war and the escalation of violence,” she added.

Demonstrator Dor Endov, a lawyer, said the war needs to stop and hostages be brought back.

“He’d really like this war to continue,” Endov said of Netanyahu.

“We already lost the war on 7th of October when those people were kidnapped. We want our family, our kidnapped people back home.”

Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the Palestinian group’s unprecedented October 7 attacks which resulted in the deaths of about 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

During the attacks militants seized about 250 hostages, around 132 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza. At least 27 captives are believed to have been killed, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive have killed at least 24,927 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas government’s health ministry.

Netanyahu has vowed not to end Israel’s war in Gaza until Hamas militants are “eliminated”, drawing criticism from his rivals and even from within his war cabinet that his goals are unclear.

“Everybody in the country apart from his poisonous coalition knows that his decisions are not for the good of the country, he is only trying to stay in office,” 69-year-old demonstrator Yair Katz said.

“We all want to see him resign, but he’ll never do it by his own means.”

Even before the war began, Netanyahu faced regular mass protests against the legal reforms his government was trying to push through.

The reforms aimed to curb the powers of the judiciary; a move seen by opponents as a threat to Israel’s democracy.

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