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Amid Israel's Rafah offensive, anger grows among protesters

Tania Krämer in Jerusalem
May 13, 2024

As Israelis prepare to mark Independence Day, protesters demanding the release of hostages and new elections are running out of patience. Talks appear deadlocked with the Rafah offensive gathering pace.

A group of protesters marching in front a building
Many Israelis are growing increasingly angry about the government's handling of hostage situationImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

At the weekly protest in Jerusalem, Amos Cividalli was handing out small pieces of adhesive tape with the number "218" written on them.

The figure represents the number of days the estimated remaining 128 hostages in Gaza have been held by Hamas and other militant groups since the terror attacks on October 7.

"I don't have much trust in the government and we're afraid they're not doing enough, they're not doing enough to bring them home," Cividalli, a regular at the protests, told DW. Just like him, thousands of Israelis took to the streets across the country on Saturday night to demand a hostage deal and new elections.  

The mood was somber at this weekend's protest, just ahead of Israel's first Memorial Day to remember fallen soldiers and civilian victims of the terror attacks after October 7. More than seven months on, the war in Gaza has killed at least 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. About 1,600 Israelis have died — most of them civilians killed on October 7 — including 620 soldiers, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Protesters holding up signs
The calls for the release of the remaining Israeli hostages and for new elections are growing louderImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Cease-fire talks break down amid Rafah offensive

The protests followed a week of dashed hopes and new developments. Indirect talks between Hamas and Israel in Cairo broke down as the Israeli army launched a ground assault on Rafah in southern Gaza and renewed its bombardment of northern Gaza. In response, Hamas and other militant groups fired rockets into southern Israel, appearing far from defeated.

On top of this, a significant rift has appeared in US-Israeli relations. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said he would withhold an arms shipment if Israel went ahead with a large-scale invasion of Rafah, sparking fears Israel could isolate itself further

"If America says we won't give you bombs if you bomb Rafah, he [Netanyahu] says we're going it alone, which is ridiculous, we can't go it alone," said Barbara, another protester from Jerusalem who declined to give her last name. "It's a very bad situation. And the only thing we can try is that we want a change and an election."

Hopes for a breakthrough in the Cairo talks, with both sides agreeing to a temporary cease-fire and the release of hostages, have been dashed too often, people at the demonstration said, and with each passing day the urgency grows. 

Palestinians seek safety as Israel reenters northern Gaza

Can Hamas be defeated?

Of the Israeli and foreign hostages, 128 are said to remain in captivity. But some are no longer alive, according to Israeli officials.

"Hamas is an enemy, they also change their minds, they also asked for things that are impossible for Israel to give. They talked about [releasing] 33 people, and now they are talking about 33, but with bodies. They are not reliable either. But you have to deal with your enemy, you have to find a way," said Cividalli.

Like others at the protest, he wants the war to end. But he said he is conflicted about the prospect of not defeating Hamas.

"Hamas in Gaza is very dangerous for Israel. And their ability to gain power, to have weapons, and their ability to attack Israeli citizens, and the way they see Israel as a totally illegitimate country, that's something we can't live with," he said.

There have been some signs of progress in the Cairo talks in recent weeks. On May 6, Hamas said it had informed Egyptian and Qatari mediators that it had agreed to a truce with Israel.

But Israeli officials quickly rejected the proposal, saying it did not meet their "vital demands" and did not meet the terms they had agreed to. But Israel still sent a working-level delegation to the indirect talks, which nevertheless ended without further progress.

Soldiers standing on top of a tank
Israel has vowed to step up its Rafah offensiveImage: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

Hamas, listed as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Germany and other governments, has accused Israel of reneging on a deal by attacking Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have sought some form of safety. 


In a statement on Friday, the militant group also said Israel's "rejection" of the agreement "[...] brings things back to square one." The main stumbling block appears to be Hamas' demand for a permanent end to the war and a full withdrawal of its forces from Gaza, terms Israel has so far rejected.  

Is Israel's strategy working?

At the protest, 18-year-old Yair and his friends, wearing T-shirts with the photo of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year-old American Israeli still being held hostage in Gaza, said they don't believe the "maximum pressure" strategy on Hamas is working. 

A few weeks ago, Hamas released a video of their friend, recorded in captivity, pleading with the government to bring him home. It was the first sign of life from Goldberg-Polin, who was badly injured by a grenade and lost his arm when he was captured at the Nova music festival on October 7.

"I was shocked, I actually started to cry. But I was also relieved to see that he was alive," said Yair. He is also angry at the government for not doing enough to bring the hostages home. "They have to bring them home like yesterday. Like now, now, now. What are they waiting for?"

The demonstrators are not alone in believing that the government must step up its efforts to secure the hostages' release. But the question remains what price the country is willing to pay for a deal. 

In a poll published on May 7 by the Israel Democracy Institute, 56% of Jewish Israelis agree that a deal to free the hostages should be Israel's "top national priority." However, 37% said military action in Rafah should be the priority. 

But there were significant differences by political orientation, according to the survey by the independent Jerusalem-based think tank. While a large majority on the left and in the center see a hostage deal as a priority, on the right 55% see a military offensive in Rafah as a priority. Especially among the nationalist religious right, 83% prefer an offensive in Rafah to a hostage deal. 

Israeli government under pressure

Among the protesters, there is widespread suspicion that the government is putting political considerations before national interests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that with or without a deal, Israel will launch an offensive in Rafah to eliminate four remaining Hamas battalions and win the war against Hamas. 

But most at the protest were not buying Netanyahu's war tactic. 

"Some of the far right, I sometimes think, don't care how many lives are lost on our side," said Barbara. "It's small potatoes compared to what we're doing to the other side, but still they think violence is the only answer."

"I've been coming to these demonstrations because the government doesn't have a plan for what comes after, if there is an after, and meanwhile the hostages are obviously dying. It's terrible and nothing is being done. The interest of the government seems to be to stay in power."

Edited by: Rob Mudge