Israelis Call for Ceasefire and Elections After 9 Months of War

Israelis on Sunday marked nine months since the devastating Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 and the start of the subsequent war in Gaza with a nationwide day of anti-government protests, at a time many here see as a pivotal moment in the conflict.

Mainly demanding a ceasefire deal with Hamas that would see the return of hostages from captivity and new elections in Israel, protesters blocked traffic at several major intersections in cities and on highways across the country. Much of central Tel Aviv was brought to a standstill in one of the largest protests in months.

Some progress has been made in recent days in resuming negotiations for an interim agreement after weeks of stalemate, despite ongoing fighting in Gaza, where an Israeli strike on Saturday hit the area of ​​a United Nations school, and along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

But many Israelis, including the families of some of the hostages, fear that efforts for a ceasefire could be undermined not only by Hamas but also by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say may prioritize the survival of his government over a deal that could topple him.

The leaders of two ultranationalist parties that are key members of Netanyahu’s coalition have threatened to bring down the government if the prime minister accepts a deal before Hamas is completely destroyed, a goal many officials and experts consider unattainable.

The far-right parties in the governing coalition “don’t want a deal,” Shikma Bressler, one of the protest leaders, said in a social media post on Sunday morning, adding: “They need Armageddon.”

“And Bibi?” added Ms. Bressler, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. “He needs war, so there will be no elections.”

Tensions over the potential deal also surfaced within Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party during Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. After the prime minister accused his rival Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of playing politics, Mr. Gallant retorted by warning Mr. Netanyahu against any “politically motivated attempts” to tie a hostage deal to other contentious issues dividing the government, according to Mr. Gallant’s office.

“This is a delicate moment,” Mr. Gallant said. “We need to reach an agreement to secure the release of the hostages.”

Israel's northern border remained volatile on Sunday, with the Lebanese organization Hezbollah firing salvos of rockets, drones and anti-tank missiles into Israeli territory. In an unusual incident, a private U.S. citizen was wounded in one of the attacks from Lebanon, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

The spokesperson said the person did not work for the U.S. government, but could not provide further details, citing privacy concerns. An Israeli soldier was also slightly injured, according to the Israeli military.

The rockets from Lebanon came a day after an Israeli aircraft carried out a deadly strike on a Hezbollah operative in the Baalbek area, deep inside Lebanon, about 40 miles northeast of Beirut.

Israel identified the target as Meitham Mustafa Altaar, describing him as a key operative of Hezbollah's Air Defense Unit who had taken part in several attacks against Israel.

Another man, believed to be Israeli, was seriously wounded Sunday in an attack from Lebanon that hit Israel harder than most previous attacks in months of cross-border fighting.

Saturday in central Gaza, Israeli planes struck in the area of ​​a United Nations school in Nuseirat, where the Israeli military said Palestinian militants were operating from several facilities. At least 16 people were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza so far, according to local health officials.

The school had become a refuge for displaced people seeking safety, the ministry added. Hamas, in a statement, called the attack a “massacre.” The Israeli military said it took measures to avoid civilian casualties in the attack and blamed Hamas for operating from areas crowded with Gazan civilians.

On Sunday, the Israeli military said its air force struck another compound near a school building in Gaza City where fighters were operating, as well as a Hamas weapons manufacturing plant in the same area.

The army said it was continuing its operations in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, and in Shajaiye, an area east of Gaza City in the north. The air force also conducted an attack on the municipality building in Khan Younis, a major southern city from which Israeli ground forces withdrew in April.

Hamas was using the building, the military said, for military activities. Before the attack, the military said, civilians had been evacuated from the area.

At a protest calling for the release of the hostages in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, a weekly event, Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is being held hostage in Gaza, said of the renewed ceasefire talks: “For the first time in many months, we feel hope.”

But he added: “Netanyahu, we have seen how you have repeatedly scuttled agreements at the moment of truth. Our hearts have been broken every time. Don't you dare break our hearts again! It is your duty to return all the citizens you have abandoned.”

Many Israelis are angry at Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal so far to take personal responsibility for the Israeli intelligence and policy failures that led to the Oct. 7 terror attack, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, and took about 250 to Gaza. Of the 120 hostages remaining in Gaza, at least a third are believed to be dead, officials say.

Sunday’s protests, which organizers called a “National Day of Unrest,” began at 6.29 a.m., the time the Hamas-led attack began on Oct. 7, with “wake-up calls” outside the homes of several lawmakers and ministers, including Defense Minister Mr. Gallant.

Several tech companies have given their employees time off to participate in the protests, which are expected to culminate in large rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later in the day. Sunday is a work day for most Israelis.

Despite recent progress in indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas, through US and Arab mediators, sticking points remain and a ceasefire agreement is not considered imminent.

The talks are based on a three-phase framework first announced by President Biden in late May and later endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Both sides agree to the broad outlines of a deal that would include an initial six-week ceasefire and the release of the most vulnerable civilian hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. But Hamas is seeking reassurance that Israel will not resume the war after some hostages return home. Israel says it needs the option to resume hostilities and will not actually commit to a permanent ceasefire from the start.

Mr Netanyahu’s office issued a statement on Sunday evening saying the prime minister remains “firmly committed” to the principles already agreed by Israel and endorsed by Mr Biden, including that any deal must allow Israel to resume fighting until it has achieved “all the objectives of the war”.

Gabby Sobelman, John Reiss AND Myra Novec contributed to the writing of the report.

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