In the largest anti-government protest since Israel went to war with Hamas in October, tens of thousands of Israelis flooded the streets of central Jerusalem on Sunday, urging the government to reach a cease-fire deal, free dozens of hostages held in Gaza, and hold early elections. The demonstration, organized by various protest groups, including those behind the mass protests that shook Israel in 2023, also called for a more equitable share of the burden of military service, which has long been a point of contention in Israeli society.

The rally, held outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, drew a massive crowd estimated by local media outlets to be in the tens of thousands. Protesters waved blue and white Israeli flags and chanted "elections now," expressing their dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and its handling of the Gaza war, which has claimed the lives of over 600 Israeli soldiers, the highest casualty toll in years.

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

The demonstration also highlighted the long-standing issue of exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students from serving in the country's conscript military. With a March 31 deadline looming for the government to come up with legislation to resolve the decades-long standoff, Netanyahu filed a last-minute application to the Supreme Court for a 30-day deferment. The court granted an extension until April 30 but ordered a suspension of state funding for seminary students who would be liable for conscription starting Monday.

Nearly six months of conflict have renewed divisions over Netanyahu's leadership, despite the country remaining largely in favor of the war. Critics blame Netanyahu for the failures of the October 7 attack, when Hamas killed some 1,200 people during a cross-border raid and took 250 others hostage. They argue that the deep political divisions over his attempted judicial overhaul last year weakened Israel ahead of the attack and accuse him of damaging relations with the United States, Israel's most important ally.

Hostage families, who had previously refrained from publicly denouncing Netanyahu to avoid politicizing the issue, are now becoming more vocal about their displeasure with the prime minister. "We believe that no hostages will come back with this government because they're busy putting sticks in the wheels of negotiations for the hostages," said Boaz Atzili, whose cousin, Aviv Atlizi, and his wife, Liat, were kidnapped on October 7. Liat was released, but Aviv was killed, and his body remains in Gaza.

In a nationally televised speech before undergoing hernia surgery later Sunday, Netanyahu said he understood the families' pain but argued that calling new elections nearly two years ahead of schedule would paralyze Israel for six to eight months and stall hostage talks. He also repeated his vow for a military ground offensive in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than half of the territory's population of 2.3 million now shelters after fleeing fighting elsewhere.

The protest comes amid growing concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with the United Nations and partners warning of the possibility of famine in the devastated and largely isolated northern region. Gaza's Health Ministry reported that at least 32,782 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, with women and children making up around two-thirds of those killed.