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In Israel, tens of thousands of protesters have called for Netanyahu to step down

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Israel, tens of thousands of protesters are in the streets demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu step down. These are the largest demonstrations since Israel invaded Gaza almost six months ago responding to attacks by Hamas. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been talking to some of the protesters in Jerusalem. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Set the scene for us. Where are these protesters and what are their demands?

KAHN: The protesters have taken up camp on this busy boulevard in front of Israel's Knesset, the legislative building in Jerusalem. And there are these rows of small, silver, domed tents. They're lining the street. And informational tents with volunteers and slogans are everywhere. You see signs calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's resignation, attacks on his ultra-right coalition partners. One antiwar group was there painting rainbow colors on this huge banner reading, imagining peace. There was a group of women knitting against the war. And many, many groups calling for the release of the more than 100 hostages still being held in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: So they've said this is going to be a four-day demonstration. What did the people you met tell you? What are they calling for?

KAHN: Most have their own issues that they were protesting. But the one unifying issue is they want Netanyahu's government to leave and for new elections to be called. Here's 75-year-old Uzi Aharony. He is with a group of veterans from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He's a retired mechanical engineer, and he says Netanyahu is destroying the democratic values of Israel.

UZI AHARONY: Right now, the government that we have is such an extreme government that if they were listening to me, they would call me a traitor. I'm not a traitor. I fought for this country, and this is what I'm doing now. I'm fighting for this country. That's what we are all doing here.

KAHN: And then I spoke with this woman. She's 65-year-old Eara Jacob, who's a lawyer. She was there demanding that the government do more to get the hostages released.

EARA JACOB: I wish that it will stop - all of it. All the killing and the war and the hatred. And I hope, I really hope that there can be hope in the future for all of us.

KAHN: And of course, like everyone, she wants Netanyahu to go.

SHAPIRO: You know, I said there are tens of thousands of people, but can you tell how representative they are of Israeli society more broadly? Is - there's a minority view?

KAHN: Well, as you said also, this is the largest protest we've seen since the war began. They are big, but they're not as big as the protests before the war, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets calling for a new government. Look, Israeli society overwhelmingly united after the Hamas attack on October 7, supporting the war effort. But that unity has coming apart (ph) as the war has dragged on.

And they would say that this government has made no progress in getting all the hostages home, and cease-fire talks are not progressing either. They blame Netanyahu for that lack of progress. And he, of course, blames Hamas. He has pledged an all-out offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah to destroy any remaining Hamas units there. But remember, there are more than a million displaced Palestinians sheltering there.

SHAPIRO: Well, beyond the opposition to Netanyahu, I know many of the protesters are also focusing on the broad exemption from military service that Israel gives to its ultra-Orthodox community. Tell us about how that factors into this movement.

KAHN: Yeah, the Hamas attack and Israel's response really intensified the opposition to that waiver. The ultra-Orthodox are Israel's fastest-growing group. And so every year, a bigger share of the population gets out of military duty, which means a small number of Israelis are taking on a bigger burden in the risk of war. There's a troop shortage now, and reservists are getting called up more often and for longer stints. The ultra-Orthodox are a key part of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, but for now, are not leaving the government over this issue. But they could, and that could trigger new elections.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thanks for your reporting.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.