'Netanyahu Must Go, Now': Israel's Newly Bereaved Families Are Holding One Man Responsible

Hilo Glazer / Haaretz

It happened last Saturday. Families who lost loved ones in the Hamas attack gathered in Jerusalem and brought down the barriers that stood between them and Netanyahu's residence. Their volcanic rage started to erupt. They can no longer stand the fact that this man is still prime minister

It started with a “J’Accuse” speech by Gadi Kedem, who lost six family members in the Hamas massacre. “I accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of leading Israel to the biggest disaster in its history,” said Kedem, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, in a video posted last Friday. “I accuse him of tearing apart the nation with the judicial coup, which dismantled and weakened the state in the face of its enemies; of forsaking the communities near the Gaza border for years; of strengthening Hamas by way of suitcases of money; of ignoring the warnings of the heads of defense organizations. The blood of my family is on his hands.”

His voice steady, but his face marked by grief, Kedem recited the names of the members of an entire family that was obliterated on Kibbutz Nir Oz: his daughter Tamar Kedem-Siman Tov and her husband, Yonatan (Johnny) Siman Tov; their twin daughters, Shachar and Arbel, 5; their son, Omer, 2, and Johnny’s mother, Carol Siman Tov. He drafted his harsh accusations ahead of time, and read from a sheet of paper.

“I accuse Netanyahu, who even now continues to constitute a real danger to the State of Israel, its soldiers and civilians. I accuse Netanyahu of inciting against the heads of the defense establishment in the middle of war... and continuing, via his proxies, to incite against parts of the population. I accuse Netanyahu of dismantling the institutions of government [so that] now, while we are at war, the state isn’t functioning. I accuse Netanyahu of busying himself with finding an alibi that would allow him to evade a commission of inquiry, instead of focusing on managing the war. I accuse him of taking care of his own interests instead of the good of the state and its security.

“Netanyahu is a danger to the state,” he continued. “He can’t send soldiers into battle. Most of the nation doesn’t believe him. To save the state and us, Netanyahu must go now. Yes, in the middle of a war. Right now.”

At the end of his speech, Kedem called on “all those who were hurt on October 7” – survivors, wounded, bereaved families, families of hostages held by Hamas and parents of soldiers serving on the front – to attend a protest that would be held the next day in front of the prime minister’s official residence on Azza Street in Jerusalem. “We have already come to understand that Netanyahu will never resign,” he said. “We must remove him now before another major disaster happens.”

Kedem’s call was shared by activists, some of whom had participated in the protest movement against the judicial overhaul, signaling a change in direction for the public response to the October 7 disaster. Following that Black Saturday, the protest movement in its many branches turned itself into civilian aid organizations.

The movement to save Israel’s democracy was put on ice, and its operating system was immediately reprogrammed to make up for the failures of the state, both on the home front and the front lines. The weekly Saturday night pro-democracy mass demonstrations on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv made way for sparse, heartbreaking vigils by the hostages’ families, calling for their loved-ones’ release from Hamas captivity.

On the same street in Tel Aviv, at a considerable distance from the families, a small protest coalesced around the call to topple Netanyahu. The “Mehdal 23” (Failure of ‘23) movement, which was created ad hoc in the wake of the disaster, made sure not to mix with the families of the hostages, and vice versa. The separation was an undeclared signal that the public struggle to bring back the captives should remain free of politics.

The voices of the bereaved families, saddled by the grief of losing their loved ones on October 7 and in the fighting that ensued, was yet to be heard. This week, all of that changed.

It’s difficult to describe what transpired this past Saturday in Jerusalem as a protest. The wellspring of fury that surged down the slope of Azza Street was an unusual sight even for a country as familiar with demonstrations as Israel has been over the past year. It was a show of boisterous anger, without bunches of blue-and-white flags and without a message of hope. Many of the attendees were veterans of previous protest movements, but only a few wore T-shirts with logos of the anti-coup organizations. This wasn’t necessarily out of an effort to blur their association with the Women Building an Alternative or Brothers in Arms groups; rather, it likely signaled the realization that the so-called judicial reform was no longer the reference point for the rift affecting Israeli society.

It was a demonstration by a body without organs (as per philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari). Without leaders, speeches or a defined route. Only a mix of cries voiced by sore throats. The protesters clashed with police and brought down road block after road block, without that being a declared purpose. Things just unraveled on their own, moved forward by intertwining volcanic eruptions. As the waves of rage and resentment broke against the prime minister’s empty residence, the joint demand emerged: The government and its leader must be replaced. Now.

The messages were both heartrending and hard to digest. “You’ve killed us. Resign now”; “1,400 murdered, 240 hostages, millions traumatized and 64 despicable [Knesset members] that even Satan didn’t create.” The chants against Netanyahu were explicit and sometimes unbearable: “Murderer,” “traitor,” “No forgiveness for the angel of destruction” and comparisons to terror organizations some of which are best not committed to paper.

At the front of the crowd, pushed against the final police roadblock, were Gadi Kedem and his wife Reuma. He held a sign saying “the blood is on your hands,” with a photo beneath it showing his late daughter, her husband and their children. On his wife’s outstretched arm five red hearts were drawn, with names written in black above them: Tamar. Johnny. Arbel. Shachar. Omeriko.

‘The man is a war criminal’

Yael Alon, who lost her son, Lt. Dor Sade, a platoon commander in the Givati Brigade, was one of the first to link her personal tragedy to the demand for Netanyahu to go. At the protest in Jerusalem, she carried a heartbreaking sign. “My father was killed in the failure of ‘73, my son was killed in the failure of ‘23,” it said, adding: “Bibi and the government of destruction should be put on trial.” In a conversation, Alon says that she came up with the slogan during the shiva (the first seven days of traditional mourning) for Dor. “It was clear to me what message I wanted to convey, and who was responsible for this failure. It wasn’t the IDF or anyone else. One man is at fault – Netanyahu – as well as members of the government who collaborated with his insanity.”

Alon, who lives in Arugot, a moshav in southern Israel, lost her father when she was 8. He was a medic who was killed in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Her son, Dor, was killed on the second day of the current war, while fighting a terrorist cell that took over a home on Kibbutz Kfar Azza.

“From the moment Dor enlisted I knew that it would end with one of the following scenarios: He would be killed, or wounded, or have PTSD. Maybe because of what happened to my dad, I didn’t think it could be any different. I told Dor: At some point our leaders will need a war in order to stay in power, and you will be sent to battle to die for them. He just stared at me with the uncomprehending look of a young kid who doesn’t think anything could happen to him.”

For the past two weeks, Alon has been holding her quiet protest by waving her sign, sometimes accompanied by her daughter holding a photo of Dor. She follows Netanyahu anywhere he might be: in front of the Kirya army headquarters in Tel Aviv; outside the home of billionaire Simon Falic, where Netanyahu is staying these days, in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood; at his private residence on Azza Street. She has one wish: for Netanyahu to look her in the eye.

“On Thursday I stood with my sign at the main entrance to the Azrieli Center [in Tel Aviv, near the army headquarters] and Bibi arrived there with his grand convoy,” she says. “Officers came up to me and said, ‘Get lost.’ I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. They asked for my name, asked for an ID. Like I’m faking it. I went crazy. I said I was a bereaved mother and if they wanted to move me, they could do it by force. It was a real struggle. In the end, one of the soldiers approached me and apologized from the bottom of his heart. He told me he also has friends who were killed,” says Alon, before adding, “The least Bibi can do is look me in the eye.”

What would bring you some kind of comfort?

“For him to be removed and tried. The man is a war criminal. The way he neglected the residents of the south is not normal. Hamas is the first [entity] responsible for the genocide that took place there. Bibi is the second [one] responsible.”

At the protest in Jerusalem, harsh accusations were heard [with regard to Netanyahu]. “Traitor,” “murderer,” “collaborator with Hamas.” It didn’t bother you?

“It didn’t bother me at all. Traitor? Yes. He betrayed us, the residents of the south. Because of his priorities, they transferred troops to Judea and Samaria, and completely abandoned people [in communities on the border with Gaza]. He nurtured Hamas, transferred money to them. I’m an extremist, I know. I’m allowed to be angry. Beyond that, I think that if he’s not removed now, more people will get hurt. How can we trust him to properly deal with the hostage issue? How can we trust him to manage the war? He’s busy scoring points, and he’ll stop the war only when it suits him. And who’s going to get killed in the meantime? More soldiers. Our sons. Not his. He’s a dangerous man.”

Jonathan Shimriz is the older brother of Alon Shimriz, a 26-year-old computer engineering student at Sapir College who was abducted from Kfar Azza. The “young generation” neighborhood where Alon lived was erased by Hamas. Jonathan is leading his family’s struggle to secure his brother’s release, which goes hand in hand with his call for Netanyahu’s immediate dismissal. “And he shouldn’t just be dismissed, he should be sent to jail,” says Shimriz. “He and the rest of the 64 Knesset members who brought this disaster upon us. I’m saying it loud and clear: He’s unfit. He’s a criminal. He has to go now.”

What about the possibility of first bringing back the hostages, and only then holding those responsible to account?

“Imagine sending your children to kindergarten and then realizing that their teacher is abusing them. And not just based on a gut feeling or circumstantial evidence; you actually saw video footage showing the teacher hitting them and cursing at them. And then you go to the supervisors, demanding that she be removed, and they say: Let’s allow her to finish the school year … That’s how I see it. Netanyahu and his people are acting against the national interest. Our tragedy is a direct result of his negligence.”

What about the urgency? Every minute that the hostages are in Gaza is a nightmare for them and for you. The process of replacing the prime minister could delay the deal.

“The event is no longer in Netanyahu’s control anyway. The man is totally passive. He is waiting for a deal to be brokered by international [entities]. When it materializes he will say yes or no, but he is incapable of taking an initiative ... We aren’t calling for an election, but for a constructive no-confidence [vote] and the appointment of an alternate prime minister in the current Knesset.”

Do you think that a substitute prime minister could manage the war better and close a deal?

“The rift between Netanyahu and the army and heads of the defense establishment cannot be mended. The polls show that his bloc would get barely 40 Knesset seats if elections were held today. He has no public mandate to manage this fight. He cannot lead such an operation – the war and the return of the hostages – while taking care of his own interests. It simply clashes.”

How do you respond to the claim that the call for Netanyahu’s dismissal only strengthens him?

“First of all, the families of the hostages and those murdered can say whatever they want. No one is going to silence us. Second of all, you’re saying this is political? I’m saying this is personal. He’s unfit. He has to take responsibility and go. Everyone understands this.”

Shimriz was one of the representatives of the hostages’ families at one of the meetings held with Netanyahu two weeks ago. “I told him that Israel’s governments had promised us over the years that we were safe, that we would get all the defenses needed to protect us, and in the end we were betrayed and left to die for 24 hours … But he doesn’t care. The moment you leave, he forgets your name.”

Shimriz notes that not all members of the captives’ families agreed with his militant views. “Some of the other people who attended the meeting clearly were Netanyahu supporters, whether it’s due to the sensitive state they’re in or due to an authentic belief that only Bibi can help them. Saying things like, ‘We stand behind you’ or even people who called him ‘Mister Prime Minister’ drove me crazy. I banged on the table and said, ‘There’s no way you [should] address him like that. Because of him, your son is in Gaza. Because of him.’”

Ofer Baram, whose son, Aviv, was a member of Kfar Azza’s community defense squad and was killed in the battle for the kibbutz, voices a similar stance. “We have to stop, topple [Netanyahu], and build something else instead,” he says.

Aviv Baram was 33 when he died, leaving behind a wife and two children. He worked as a stage manager and tech producer for singers like Hanan Ben Ari and Ivry Lider, and was a fan of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team. “My boy has already been killed,” says his father, “but he gives me the strength to fight for the State of Israel. My struggle, for things to be better here, is in his name. “

In his son’s name, Baram, who himself lives in nearby Sderot, is calling for Netanyahu’s immediate dismissal, to the chagrin of some members of his family and survivors from Kfar Azza. “The people who are here in Shefayim [a kibbutz in central Israel where evacuees from Kfar Azza are now staying] have different approaches. Quite a few say that we should keep quiet until the war is over, that if we make noise they won’t want to bring back the hostages. I’m against this approach. History shows that it’s when you sit quietly that you won’t be taken into account. Look at the protests held by people with disabilities, Ethiopian Israelis and Itzik Saidian [an army veteran who attempted suicide by self-immolation after being denied proper recognition of his PTSD]. My militant views [about the need to be disruptive] displease some of the people here, but I stand behind them.”

Baram, who serves as a volunteer police officer with the Netivot precinct, expressed his harsh position against the government and its leader even before the protest in Jerusalem last Saturday. “At one of the protests in Kaplan, as my friends from Kfar Azza sat on the grass in the Sarona commercial center and called for the return of the hostages, I stood on the road with a sign calling for the end of the regime of negligence. I blocked one of the lanes, and when the police arrived, I told them they had two choices: to handcuff me or call [Tel Aviv police chief] Peretz Amar to take me to the station himself. The moment they realized that I understood a thing or two, they left me alone.”

This past Saturday night, Baram stood out as one of the harshest, most explicit voices at the protest. When clashes broke out with the police, he yelled “Where were you [when Kfar Azza was attacked]?” at them. This statement was highlighted in news reports, with some websites presenting it as evidence of “the left” losing its head. Baram now explains the context for what he said.

“Protesters started flocking down the street, the police insisted on pushing us back, horses kicked me and everything started to heat up,” he says. “I yelled at them that they misunderstood the duty of the police. That their role was to protect the protesters, not harass them. I was angry. I actually cried. I was ashamed to be part of this institution. Due the humiliation, I yelled at some officer there: ‘You won’t bring back my commander.’ After all, the southern district police officers fought hard to rescue us, the residents of Sderot and the Gaza vicinity. That was what I meant.”

Aside from your statement, other harsh statements were heard. Netanyahu was portrayed at the protest more than once as a traitor, murderer and terrorist.

“He’s not a traitor, a murderer or terrorist, but he’s absolutely guilty. The blood of the 1,400 killed is on his hands. He was the one to put together a government of incompetents, he was the one to divide the state and tear it into pieces, he was the one who let his wife and kid go crazy at our expense. No one shares the blame, it’s him and him alone.”

Not all bereaved parents identified with the militant characteristic of the protest. One veteran activist stood on the sidelines waving a photo of his son, who died in the Hamas attack. It looked like he had reservations about the slogans. “This protest was painful for me,” he acknowledged the next day when I called him.

“Statements like ‘Bibi is a murderer’ are unforgivable in my view and the disparagement of police crossed a red line. I’m saying loud and clear: Bibi must go, and he better go now because he’s causing damage. I accuse him of a lot of things: of abandonment, of divisiveness and incitement. But calling him a traitor doesn’t move anything forward. We can’t adopt the rhetoric of the other side. We need to set a personal example. To build bridges, to aspire toward connection.”

Government of betrayal

Gideon Avital-Eppstein, a historian and writer, is one of the leaders of the Mehdal 23 protest movement, which has established itself on Kaplan Street in recent weeks. The movement has no structural or organizational connection to the protest against the judicial reform, he emphasizes – “other than the fact that we have people who also took an active part in that struggle.” Avital-Eppstein, who fought in the Yom Kippur War and has devoted much of his research and literary work to the history of the 1973 war, believes that a comparison is essential.

“In contrast to 1973,” he says, “no one knows today what the rationale of the war is and where it’s going – and not because of the fog of battle. Golda [Meir, prime minister in 1973]managed the war out of concern for the citizens and the soldiers; the question of her public image was completely secondary. Whereas today it’s not clear where the public’s interest is located within the web of Netanyahu’s considerations. You know, he is continuing to weaken every power center that is not him, in the hope that this will serve him in public opinion.”

During the past few weeks, relates Avital-Eppstein, 71, he occasionally walked along Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv to speak with the families of the hostages who are demonstrating opposite the Kirya, defense establishment headquarters. “At first the dominant sentiment [among them] was one of trepidation about speaking out against Netanyahu, for fear he might come out against them. I can understand that, even though in my view that has no basis because in any case the abductees are not his first priority. Recently, I noticed a certain process of internal separation there, between a group of families who still admire or believe in Netanyahu and those who are allowing themselves to be critical of him openly.”

Avital-Eppstein is hoping that he will be able to enlist the families who were directly affected by the disaster to join in the call to oust Netanyahu. “Mehdal 23 is a political group,” he explains. “Not in the party sense but by its very demand for an immediate replacement of the leadership.”

In the meantime, he says, he has consolidated ties with the peace activist Yaacov Godo, whose son, Tom, was murdered in his home in Kibbutz Kissufim. The idea is to join forces with the bereaved families who identify with the message of Mehdal 23. Ahead of the events marking the 30th day since the start of the war (30 days constitute the second significant period of ritual Jewish mourning), Godo organized a demonstration in Jerusalem, under the slogan, “Liberate the government into competent hands.”

The invitation to the event urged people “to go to the Knesset and call out in a loud voice for the immediate ouster of the agent of chaos Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hands are drenched in the blood of the slain and on whose head lies responsibility for the abducted and the captives.” The group also declared that they would set up a tent camp adjacent to the site and promised, “We will not budge from the entrance to the Knesset until he goes.”

On Tuesday evening, Godo was more specific in committing himself verbally “to launch a bitter war against that man and to remain here for as long as it takes – a week, two weeks, half a year or more.” But in contrast to the Saturday evening demonstration, the spirit of battle was not what informed the event on Tuesday, which was held next to the Knesset and took the form of a memorial ceremony. The organizers asked the crowd to express their protest silently – without megaphones, bicycle horns or slogans, not even cries of solidarity.

At the ceremony, Prof. Gili Drori, dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, carried a photograph of her nephew, Amit Peled, a combat soldier in the Egoz commando unit, who fell in the battle for the army’s Kissufim outpost.

“He and his team were in Hawara [a West Bank Palestinian village] and were dispatched from there to the south,” Drori relates. “In Hawara you serve only with light arms. They left in a hurry and got to Kissufim missing a great deal of equipment. They entered the outpost with almost nothing. The family’s consolation, such as it is, is that Amit and his buddies saved at least 28 spotters, two civilian women and a baby. But still – an atrocity. If I have the strength, I will stand at the Ariel Junction [in the West Bank] with a sign reading, ‘Amit’s blood is on the head of the Sukkot revelers in Hawara.’” (The massacre in the Negev came at the end of the weeklong Sukkot festival, when extra troops were moved to the West Bank to guard celebrating settlers, at the expense of the army’s presence near the Gaza border.)

So the Hawara blunder is the main reason you’re here?

“I came here out of pain and shock because 240 abductees are still there. As for Hawara, it’s really unpleasant for me to be critical of the army now. I want to talk about the policy. I demonstrated here next to the Knesset 10 months ago in other circumstances. Today it’s clear to everyone what the price is of this governance rot and that the person exclusively responsible for it is the person who has ruled here almost consecutively for 15 years.”

Also bearing a sign with a photograph was Hannah Wacholder Katsman. Her photo was of her son, Hayim Katsman, 32, who was murdered next to his home in Kibbutz Holit. An accompanying text listed his many occupations: student of religion and philosophy, car mechanic, musician and anti-occupation activist who aided Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills.

Wacholder-Katsman notes that she wasn’t sure that the time was ripe for her to attend the ceremony. “I’m not one of those who knows better than everyone what to do, so I generally refrain,” she explained. “But I took part in the demonstrations against the judicial coup from the start, and the truth is that they made me feel better than I’d felt for a long time. So from my point of view, my being here today comes more out of a feeling of belonging to the protest and the ties to its people. But obviously I identify with the basic demand that is being voiced here. Netanyahu is unworthy and unfit.”

Maoz Inon, a social entrepreneur and a founder of the Abraham Hostel chain, was a speaker at the event. He talked about his parents, Bilha and Yakovi, who perished when their home, at Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, was set ablaze by a terrorist with them inside. “It’s been 30 [days] since the government betrayed and abandoned my parents, along with another 1,400 victims and 240 hostages. Since then there hasn’t been one family that Netanyahu or a government representative visited. He wasn’t at any funeral or shivah.

All the families are shattered, but they all know who’s guilty and who abandoned them: Benjamin Netanyahu and his government of blunder and failure. I have come here to the Knesset of Israel in order to say what my mother said to him every Saturday night at in the demonstration at the Sha’ar Hanegev intersection: ‘Go.’”

Hundreds of people, who until that moment heeded the organizers’ request and expressed their protest silently, could not help themselves from joining in. And from the Rose Garden, between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, arose a broken cry: “Go. Go. Go.”