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Mobilising inside Israeli society to end the war and return the hostages (14 May)

The latest report from Uri Weltmann, National Field Organiser of Standing Together, on the movement’s latest activity.

Dear friends,

The possibility of a ceasefire deal – which two weeks ago was seemed to be on the table – is now becoming ever more scant, as Netanyahu’s government pushes for an invasion of Rafah, ordering the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who took shelter there, huddled in tents, after fleeing other parts of the Gaza Strip, possibly mourning loved ones and possibly having their homes demolished or damaged..

The army took over the Rafah border crossing, and as extremist settlers operate with impunity to block trucks carrying badly needed food supplies, the humanitarian catastrophe continues to devastate people’s lives. In the meantime, governments around the world are losing patience with the hawkish policies of Netanyahu – who aligns completely with his far-right coalition partners, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. This is evident from the important vote at the UN this week, which made another step towards recognizing the State of Palestine.

Meanwhile, inside Israeli society, there is a growing unrest. This week there was the National Memorial Day – in which the memory of fallen soldiers is honored –  followed by Independence Day. These two days were turned into days of protest against the government. During Memorial Day, as government ministers were visiting military cemeteries across the country to give speeches in official ceremonies, they were booed and chased away by grieving families, accusing them for the protraction of the war and for their refusal to reach a ceasefire agreement that would allow the return of the hostages. The families of the hostages staged an alternative Independence Day ceremony – an act of defiance against usually highly revered state symbols.

Today, people from dozens of towns in northern Israel, bordering with Lebanon, were protesting the fact that they are evacuated from their towns for  more than half a year, that their homes are under bombardment from Hizbullah, and that the government doesn’t have a plan on how will they return back, nor does it provide adequate social solutions to the evacuated families. Indeed, achieving quiet on the northern front goes hand in hand with achieving quiet in Gaza, yet this is exactly what Netanyahu’s government is determined to prevent.

Public opinion polls continue to show high levels of support for a diplomatic agreement that would end the war and return the hostages. A public opinion poll published by Maariv daily newspaper on May 10th, showed that had new elections been called, the bloc of Right-wing parties which comprise Netanyahu’s coalition will see a drop in support, from 64 seats held today (out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament) to mere 47 seats.

According to Channel 13 public opinion poll, published on May 7th, 56% believe Netanyahu cares more about his own personal political survival than he cares about releasing the hostages, and 52% said they disagreed with Netanyahu’s claim that invading Rafah will bring “total victory”.

The growing dissatisfaction with the government is further compounded by the cost of living crisis: the prices of dozens of basic food items were increased on May 1st, including higher gas prices and rising rents in major cities. Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right “Religious Zionism” party, stated that he intends to start dealing with the cost of living crisis ‘only after we resolve the question of Rafah’… This resulted in broad public criticism, with the Chairperson of the Histadrut trade union federation repeating his call to hold early elections.

Against this public atmosphere, Standing Together – along with a coalition of partners, including Women Wage Peace and Breaking the Silence – organized a march on Thursday (9 May), in the center of Tel-Aviv, titled “Stop the War, Return the Hostages”.

Close to 3,000 people marched from Meir park to Habima Square, chanting “In Rafah and Sderot, children want to live”, “half a year of hell – the peoples want peace”, “The people demand – ceasefire now!”, “hostages deal now!”, “Yes to peace, no to occupation”, and others. In Habima square a rally was held with Jewish and Arab-Palestinian speakers. This was the biggest demonstration in Israel of the peace movements since October 7th.

The first speaker was Sally Abed – a leader of Standing Together, recently elected to the Haifa City Council – who spoke about the need to build unity across difference, and that the fight to end the war and return the hostages is one that can unite both Jewish as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel, around shared interests.

The second speaker was Shachar Mor (Zahiru), whose nephew is held captive in Gaza by Hamas. He spoke harshly against the cynicism of Netanyahu and his allies, and called to end the war and bring back the hostages.

Avivit John – a survivor from the massacre in Kibbutz Beeri, where many innocent lives were lost on October 7th – told the crowd she lost friends and family in the Hamas attack, but she doesn’t want us as a society to lose our humanity as well. She called to end the war, to recognize the shared humanity of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and to bring back the hostages.

Member of Knesset Dr. Ahmad Tibi, Chairperson of the Arab Movement for Change, stressed the importance of a joint struggle of Jewish as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel, criticized the government for its targeting of the Arab-Palestinian minority inside Israel, and called for establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, according to UN resolutions: “The Israeli political establishment has tried deportations, has tried ethnic cleansing, has tried war – one thing it hadn’t tried, is achieving peace”.

Orthodox feminist woman Rabbi Leah Shakdiel, spoke on behalf of “The Faithful Left”, a new faith based movement of religious Jewish-Israelis who work for peace and equality.

Michael Ziv, a reservist soldier who served in the Gaza Strip spoke on behalf of “Breaking the Silence”, highlighting the human rights violations committed by the ongoing occupation and calling to end the war.