Thousands in Israel protest for hostages release, conscription of ultra-Orthodox

By Janis Laizans and Rami Amichay

TEL AVIV, Israel (Reuters) - Thousands in Israel took to the streets on Thursday in two separate protests, one demanding an immediate release of hostages from Gaza and another calling for drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military.

The protests were public displays of growing divisions in Israeli society and politics five months into the Gaza war.

Protesters calling for the release of hostages marched from a Tel Aviv square carrying enlarged images of women held in Gaza, briefly blocking the highway at one point.

"Bringing them back as soon as possible will be the only image of victory from this damned war," one woman yelled into a megaphone. Others chanted: "Deal, now!"

Israel believes 134 hostages remain in Gaza following a Hamas-led attack on its southern communities on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 captured.

Since then, Israel's air, sea and ground assault on blockaded Gaza has killed more than 31,000 people and wounded over 72,880, according to Gaza health authorities.

In a statement released by his office following a meeting with representatives of the families of the hostages earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government was "committed to returning everyone" but that Hamas was "still clinging to unacceptable demands" in negotiations.

Hamas has blamed Israel for thwarting progress in ceasefire talks.

In another protest on Thursday, Israelis protested against Netanyahu's coalition government, demanding an end to the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from compulsory military service.

Leading Israeli news site Ynet reported that some 10,000 people participated in the demonstration, also held in Tel Aviv.

Israel's Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society.

Parliament failed to come up with a new arrangement, and a government-issued stay on mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox expires in March.

(Reporting by Janis Laizans and Rami Amichay; editing by Jonathan Oatis)