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Israeli protesters block highways, call for cease-fire to return hostages from Gaza

Demonstrators wave Israeli flags during a protest near buildings.
Demonstrators wave Israeli flags during a protest Sunday in Tel Aviv marking nine months since the start of the war and calling for the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group.
(Leo Correa / Associated Press)
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Marking nine months since the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli protesters blocked highways across the country Sunday, calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down and pushing for a cease-fire to bring back scores of hostages held by Hamas.

The demonstrations came as long-running efforts to broker a truce gained momentum in the last few days when Hamas dropped a key demand for an Israeli commitment to end the war. The militant group still wants mediators to guarantee a permanent cease-fire, while Netanyahu is vowing to keep fighting until Israel destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.

“Any deal will allow Israel to return and fight until all the goals of the war are achieved,” Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday that was likely to deepen Hamas’ concerns about the proposal.

Israelis launch ‘Day of Disruption’

Sunday’s “Day of Disruption” started at 6:29 a.m., the same time Hamas militants launched the first rockets toward Israel in the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war. Protesters blocked main roads and demonstrated outside of the homes of government ministers.

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Near the border with Gaza, Israeli protesters released 1,500 black and yellow balloons to symbolize those who were killed and abducted.

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Hannah Golan said she came to protest the “devastating abandonment of our communities by our government.” She added: “It’s nine months today, to this black day, and still nobody in our government takes responsibility.”

Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people in the surprise attack and took 250 others hostage. Israel’s retaliatory offensive in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count.

About 120 hostages remain captive after more than 100 hostages were released as part of a November cease-fire deal. Israel has already concluded that more than 40 of the remaining hostages are dead, and there are fears that the number will grow.

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The United States has rallied the world behind a proposal for a phased cease-fire in which Hamas would release the remaining captives in return for a lasting cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. But Hamas wants guarantees from mediators that the war will end, while Israel wants the freedom to resume fighting if talks over releasing the last batch of hostages drag on.

Israel continues to battle pockets of Palestinian militants across Gaza after months of heavy bombing and ground operations that have devastated the territory’s major cities and driven most of its population of 2.3 million people from their homes, often multiple times. On Sunday, Israel issued new evacuation orders for parts of Gaza City, which was heavily bombed and largely emptied early in the war.

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A Palestinian woman carries a child and holds another's hand as they walk amid rubble and a lake of sewage in Gaza.
Palestinians displaced by Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip walk next a dark streak of sewage flowing into the streets of the southern town of Khan Yunis.
(Jehad Alshrafi / Associated Press)

Bodies found with hands tied

The Nasser Hospital in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis said the bodies of three Palestinians were retrieved from the area of the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel. A hospital statement said they were handcuffed, and an Associated Press reporter saw one of the bodies with bound hands.

An Israeli airstrike killed a prominent Palestinian doctor and eight members of his extended family after they complied with orders to evacuate.

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Abdel-Hadi Ghabaeen, an uncle of one of the deceased, said they had been working to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid and commercial shipments through the crossing. He said he saw soldiers detain them on Saturday, and that the bodies bore signs of beatings, with one having a broken leg.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports.

Thousands of Palestinians have been detained since the start of the war, and many of those who have been released, as well as some Israelis who have worked at detention facilities, say detainees have been tortured and held under harsh conditions. Israeli authorities have denied abusing prisoners.

Israeli airstrikes overnight and into Sunday meanwhile killed at least 13 Palestinians, including the undersecretary of labor in the largely dismantled Hamas-run government.

Ihab al Ghussein was among four people killed in a strike on a school-turned-shelter in Gaza City, according to the Civil Defense, a first responders group under the Hamas-run government. Hamas mourned his loss in a statement and said a strike earlier in the war had destroyed his house and killed his wife and daughter.

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The Israeli military said it had struck a militant complex “in the area of a school building,” as well as a nearby Hamas weapons-making facility in Gaza City after taking steps to mitigate harm to civilians.

Israel trades fire with Hezbollah

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said early Sunday that it launched dozens of projectiles toward northern Israel, targeting areas more than 20 miles from the border, deeper than most launches. A 28-year-old man was seriously wounded, Israel’s national rescue service reported.

The escalating war between Hezbollah and Israel — coupled with scorching heat — has sparked fires that are destroying forests and farmland.

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Another attack near the border wounded three people, one of them seriously, according to the Galilee Medical Center. Israeli media reported that the critically wounded individual was an American citizen. There was no immediate confirmation from the army.

Hezbollah began launching rocket and mortar attacks after the outbreak of the war in Gaza. The range and severity of the attacks and Israel’s counterstrikes have escalated in recent weeks, raising fears of an all-out war that would have catastrophic consequences for people on both sides of the border.

Mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar have intensified their efforts in the past week to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas. Hezbollah has said it will halt its attacks if there is a cease-fire in Gaza.

The compromise on Saturday by Hamas could lead to the first pause in fighting since November and set the stage for further talks, though all sides still warned that a deal is not yet guaranteed.

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Washington’s phased deal would start with a “full and complete” six-week cease-fire during which older, sick and female hostages would be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. During those 42 days, Israeli forces would withdraw from densely populated areas of Gaza and allow the return of displaced people to their homes in northern Gaza.

War-weary Palestinians in the Gaza Strip appeared pessimistic, after previous instances in which the two sides appeared to be closing in on a deal.

“We have lived nine months of suffering,” said Heba Radi, a mother of six children living in a tent in the central city of Deir al Balah, where she has been sheltering since they fled their home in Gaza City. “The cease-fire has become a distant dream.”

Lidman and Magdy write for the Associated Press. Lidman reported from Tel Aviv, Magdy from Cairo.

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