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Thousands call for fresh elections in Israel amid ongoing protests against Netanyahu

Thousands of Israeli demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday to call for new elections and demand more action from the government to bring the hostages held in Gaza home, in the latest round of protests against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The protests have continued as the war in Gaza moves through its seventh month and amid growing anger over the government’s approach to the 133 Israeli hostages still held by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Surveys indicate that most Israelis blame Mr Netanyahu for the security failures that led to the devastating attack by Hamas fighters on communities in southern Israel on October 7th.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has repeatedly ruled out early elections, which opinion polls suggest he would lose, saying that to go to the polls in the middle of a war would only reward Hamas.

“We’re here to protest against this government that keeps dragging us down, month after month; before October 7th, after October 7th. We kept going down in a spiral,” said Yalon Pikman (58) who attended a march in Tel Aviv.

Hamas-led gunmen seized 253 people during the October 7th attack that killed around 1,200, according to Israeli tallies. Some hostages were freed in a November truce, but efforts to secure another deal appear to have stalled.

Mr Netanyahu has pledged to continue the Israeli campaign in Gaza, which local health authorities say has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, until all the hostages are brought home and Hamas has been destroyed.

Last week’s attack on Israel by waves of Iranian drones and missiles shifted attention from the conflict in Gaza and for many relatives of the remaining hostages there is a growing feeling that time is running out.

“My mother is really strong. She’s holding us together,” said Sharone Lifschitz (52) whose 85 year-old mother, Yocheved Lifshitz, was among the hostages released in November but whose father, Oded, remains in captivity.

“But as time passes, the weight of what is happening – the way that those who could have returned them failed to return them – the sheer weight of that is weighing more and more on her shoulders. And her hope, too, is diminishing.”

Also on Saturday, a Palestinian ambulance driver was killed on his way to evacuate the wounded during a raid by violent Jewish settlers and at least 12 Palestinians died during a separate incident in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian authorities said. The incident came as violence flared across the area and fighting continued in Gaza.

The Palestinian health ministry said the 50-year-old driver was killed by Israeli gunfire near the village of Al-Sawiya, south of the city of Nablus, as he was making his way to transport people injured during the attack on the village.

It was not immediately clear whether he was shot by settlers. There was no immediate comment from the military.

In a separate incident in the Nur Shams area, near the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, health authorities said at least 12 Palestinians, two of whom were identified by Palestinian sources and officials as a gunman and a 16 year-old boy, were killed during an extended raid by Israeli forces.

A number of militants were killed and more arrested, the Israeli military said, and at least four soldiers were wounded in exchanges of fire.

Tulkarm Brigades group, which includes militants from numerous Palestinian factions, said its fighters exchanged fire with Israeli forces on Saturday.

At least three drones were seen hovering above Nur Shams, where Israeli military vehicles were massed and bursts of gunfire were heard.

In Gaza, Israeli strikes hit the southern city of Rafah, where over one million Palestinians are sheltering, as well as Al-Nuseirat in central Gaza, where at least five houses were destroyed, and the Al-Jabalia area in the north, health officials and Hamas media said.

The Israeli military said troops were carrying out raids in central Gaza, where they were engaged in close quarter combat with Palestinian fighters.

Overall, Israeli strikes in Gaza killed 37 Palestinians and wounded 68 over the past 24 hours, Palestinian health authorities said.

Fighting has continued in Gaza despite the withdrawal of most of Israel’s combat forces earlier this month from southern areas.

Rafah is the last Gaza area that Israeli ground forces have not entered in the war aimed at eliminating Hamas.

Mr Netanyahu has faced wide international opposition to the plan to attack Rafah, where the military says the last remaining organised brigades of Hamas are located and where the remaining 133 Israeli hostages are believed to be held.

The Gaza war has overshadowed continuing violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including regular army raids on militant groups, rampages by Jewish settlers in Palestinian villages, and street attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.

The Palestinian health ministry confirmed the deaths of two people since Friday in Nur Shams, an area that houses refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants. One fatality was identified by Palestinian sources as a gunman. The second was a 16-year-old schoolboy, according to Palestinian officials.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned the United States for effectively stopping the United Nations from recognising a Palestinian state by casting a veto this week in the Security Council. – Reuters


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