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Tens of thousands rally against Netanyahu government in Jerusalem

Israeli news sources claim it was the biggest demonstration since 7 October, with protesters calling for new elections and an end to military exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men
Demonstrators light fires during a protest against the Israeli government in Jerusalem on 31 March 2024 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Demonstrators light fires during a protest against the Israeli government in Jerusalem on 31 March 2024 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Jerusalem on Sunday against Benjamin Netanyahu's government and against exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military service, in scenes reminiscent of mass street protests last year.

Protest groups, including some that led the mass demonstrations that rocked Israel in 2023, organised the rally outside parliament, the Knesset, calling for a new election to replace the government.

The protesters also want a more equal share in the burden of army service that binds most Israelis. Around 600 soldiers have been killed so far since the Hamas attack of 7 October and the ensuing war in Gaza, the military's highest casualty toll in years.

Israel's N12 News said it appeared to be the largest demonstration since the war began. Haaretz and Ynet news sites said it drew tens of thousands of people.

Netanyahu's cabinet has faced widespread criticism over the security failure of the Hamas attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage to Gaza.

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"This government is a complete and utter failure," said 74-year-old Nurit Robinson, at the rally. "They will lead us into the abyss."

'Elections now'

Israel's war in the Palestinian enclave has aggravated a longstanding source of friction in society that is also unsettling Netanyahu's coalition government - exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students from service in the country's conscript military.

With a 31 March deadline looming for the government to come up with legislation to resolve a decades-long standoff over the issue, Netanyahu filed a last-minute application to the Supreme Court last week for a 30-day deferment.

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In an apparent accommodation, the Supreme Court gave government officials until 30 April to submit additional arguments. But, in an interim ruling, it also ordered a suspension of state funding for seminary students who would be liable for conscription from Monday.

Protesters were waving blue and white Israeli flags and chanting "elections now".

At a news conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he was confident a solution would be found. He also said that holding an election at the height of war, when he said Israel was so close to victory, would paralyse the country for months.

In Tel Aviv, some families of hostages and their supporters blocked a main highway, protesting against what they described as Netanyahu's failure to return their loved ones.

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