Israelis demonstrate in their largest anti-government protest since the war in Gaza began.

JERUSALEM –

Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered outside the parliament building in Jerusalem on Sunday in the largest anti-government demonstration since the country went to war in October. They urged the government to reach a ceasefire agreement to release dozens of hostages held by the Hamas militant group in Gaza and hold early elections.

Israeli society was largely united in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, when Hamas killed about 1,200 people during a cross-border attack and took another 250 hostage. Nearly six months of conflict have renewed divisions, although the country largely remains favor of war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and bring all hostages home, but those goals have been elusive. While Hamas has suffered heavy losses, it remains intact.

About half of the hostages in Gaza were freed during a week-long ceasefire in November. But repeated attempts by international mediators to negotiate another ceasefire agreement to bring the remaining hostages home have failed.

The families of the hostages believe that time is running out.

“After six months, it seems that the government understands that Bibi Netanyahu is an obstacle,” said protester Einav Moses, whose father-in-law, Gadi Moses, is being held hostage. “Like I really don’t want to bring them back, that they have failed in this mission.”

The crowd spread for blocks around the Knesset, or parliament building, and organizers vowed to continue the demonstration for several days. They urged the government to hold new elections almost two years ahead of schedule. Thousands of people also demonstrated in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu, in a nationally televised speech before undergoing hernia surgery on Sunday, said he understood the families’ pain. But he said calling new elections – at what he described as a moment before victory – would paralyze Israel for six to eight months and paralyze hostage talks.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition appears to remain firmly intact, and even if he were ousted, his main rival, Benny Gantz, is a member of the war cabinet and would likely continue many of his policies.

Police drag away people participating in a protest against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 31, 2024. (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo)

Netanyahu also reiterated his promise of a military ground offensive in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than half of the territory’s population of 2.3 million is now sheltering after fleeing fighting elsewhere. “There is no victory without entering Rafah,” he said, adding that US pressure would not deter him. The Israeli military says Hamas battalions remain there.

In another reminder of Israel’s divisions, a group of reservists and retired officers demonstrated in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Ultra-Orthodox men for generations have received exemptions from military service, which is mandatory for most Jewish men and women. Resentment over this has deepened during the war. Netanyahu’s government has been ordered to present a new plan for a more equitable bill by Monday.

Netanyahu, who relies heavily on support from ultra-Orthodox parties, last week asked for an extension. “It is necessary to promote equality. This can be done with hammers, but it will not work,” he stated.

Israeli airstrike hits hospital tent camp

Also on Sunday, an Israeli airstrike hit a tent camp in the courtyard of a crowded hospital in central Gaza, killing two Palestinians and wounding 15 others, including journalists working nearby.

An Associated Press reporter filmed the attack and its aftermath at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, where thousands of people have taken refuge. The Israeli military said it attacked a command center of the Islamic Jihad militant group.

Tens of thousands of people have sought refuge in Gaza hospitals, considering them relatively safe from airstrikes. Israel accuses Hamas and other militants of operating in and around medical facilities, which Gaza health officials deny.

Only a third of Gaza’s hospitals are even partially functioning. Doctors say they are often forced to operate without anesthesia or other crucial supplies.

Those injured in Sunday’s attack lay on the floor of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital and gasped as they were treated, one of them clinging to the underside of a stretcher containing another person.

Israeli troops have been attacking Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest, for almost two weeks and say they have killed dozens of fighters, including senior Hamas officials. Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 100 patients remain without drinking water and with septic wounds, while doctors use plastic bags as gloves.

Not far from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, dozens of Palestinian Christians gathered at the Holy Family Church to celebrate Easter, with incense wafting around the rare building that appeared untouched by the war. “We are here with sadness,” said assistant Winnie Tarazi. About 600 people are taking refuge in the facility.

Israel is carrying out one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history.

Gaza death toll nears 33,000, hunger grows

The United Nations and its partners warn that famine could occur in devastated and largely isolated northern Gaza. Humanitarian officials say deliveries by sea and air are not enough and that Israel must allow much more aid by road. Egypt has said there are thousands of trucks waiting.

World Food Program director Cindy McCain told CBS that they were only able to get nine trucks into Gaza on Thursday. “That’s nothing. We just can’t go on like this,” she said. “Otherwise, people are going to die, and they are already dying.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Sunday that at least 32,782 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but has said women and children account for about two-thirds of the dead.

Israel says more than a third of those killed are militants, although it has not provided evidence, and blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group operates in residential areas.

The United States, Qatar and Egypt have been trying to negotiate another ceasefire. Talks resumed in Cairo on Sunday with little expectation of any progress.

Hamas wants any such agreement to lead to an end to the war and the withdrawal of Israeli forces. Netanyahu has rejected those demands and says Israel will continue fighting until it has destroyed Hamas’s military and governance capabilities.

Amid concerns about a broader conflict in the region, Lebanese state media reported that an Israeli drone hit a car in the southern Lebanese city of Konin.

A Lebanese security official told The Associated Press that Hezbollah militant Ismail al-Zain was killed, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations. The Israeli military called al-Zain a “major commander” of the elite anti-tank unit of Hezbollah’s Radwan Forces, which has carried out attacks in northern Israel. Hezbollah confirmed the death.

Magdy reported from Cairo and Shurafa from Deir al-Balah

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