Biggest rally against Netanyahu since start of war held in Jerusalem

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Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Jerusalem on Sunday night in the biggest protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government since the start of the war with Hamas in October last year.

The protest, partly organised by groups that had led a wave of anti-government protests last year, called for early elections as well as a deal for the roughly 130 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza to be released.

Bearing banners reading “Elections now”, and chanting slogans such as “You destroyed the country and we will fix it”, the crowd gathered outside Israel’s parliament before a few hundred tried to block Begin Boulevard, one of the main roads around Jerusalem.

Protest leaders have said they plan to set up a tent city near the parliament, and that they will hold further protests until Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a separate small group of protesters rallied in the ultraorthodox neighbourhood of Mea She’arim calling for an end to the exemption for ultraorthodox religious students from Israel’s obligatory military service.

The exemption dates back to a compromise thrashed out under Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion in 1948, but has long been a source of resentment for other Jewish Israelis, who typically do at least two years’ military service. It has become increasingly controversial during the war.

Police were deployed to keep the protesters and ultraorthodox residents apart, with protest organisers claiming that ultraorthodox threw eggs at demonstrators.

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ reservist protest group wave Israeli flags during a demonstration in the ultraorthodox neighbourhood of Mea She’arim, demanding equality in Israel’s military service © Ohad Zwigenberg/AP

During a press conference on primetime television, shortly before he was due to undergo surgery for treatment of a hernia, Netanyahu hit back at the protesters calls for an early election, saying only Hamas would profit from this and insisting he was doing all he could to secure the release of the hostages.

“Calls for elections now during the war, a moment before victory, will paralyse Israel for at least six months; in my estimate, for eight months,” he said. “They will paralyse the negotiations for the release of our hostages and, in the end, will lead to ending the war before achieving its goals and the first to commend this will be Hamas, and that says it all.”

He also expressed confidence that the government could reach a deal on conscription for the ultraorthodox. The issue is widely seen as having the potential to bring down his government. The administration includes ultraorthodox parties, determined to preserve the exemption, and former soldiers, including defence minister Yoav Gallant, who want to scrap it.

The government had been due to draft legislation on the issue by Sunday, but with the coalition unable to agree on a text, Netanyahu asked the supreme court on Thursday night for another 30 days to reach a deal.

The court granted Netanyahu’s request. However, in a move that ratcheted up the pressure on the coalition to find a solution, it also ordered that, from Monday, the government must suspend state subsidies for religious students who meet the criteria for conscription.

That move drew a furious reaction from the two ultraorthodox parties in Netanyahu’s government, but on Sunday night the prime minister said he still believed a solution could be found.

“We need to advance the equality [of military service],” he said “[But] it can be done in a positive spirit and with widespread agreement.”

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