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Mothers of IDF soldiers protest to bring troops home

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What does it take to build an anti-war movement right now in Israel? There are small but growing protests against the Gaza war, and they include a group of Israeli mothers whose sons are serving there in uniform, who don't have the heart to tell their sons they're calling for their withdrawal. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The story begins with an Israeli mother who felt very alone. Math professor Michal Brody-Bareket was walking in downtown Jerusalem to join the first protest demonstration organized a week into the war.

MICHAL BRODY-BAREKET: And when I reached the protest, I didn't understand where is everybody.

ESTRIN: The police had broken it up.

BRODY-BAREKET: And then policemen aggressively threw me to the ground, me and my sign. They just saw the sign, and they threw me to the ground.

ESTRIN: Only a week before, Hamas had invaded southern Israel, carried out a massacre and captured hundreds of hostages. The signs she held called for Israel to begin negotiations for the release of the hostages. Israelis on the street called out death threats.

BRODY-BAREKET: A very high hostility was in the street towards this opinion.

ESTRIN: But that is exactly what Israel ended up doing - negotiating with Hamas for the release of half of the hostages. Meanwhile, her son was sent to fight in Gaza.

BRODY-BAREKET: In my worst dreams, I never thought of such a situation that my son will be sent inside Gaza. I was climbing the walls. I was so nervous.

ESTRIN: Army service is mandatory for most Israelis. Her 21-year-old son serves in a special forces unit. About half of his small team has now been wounded, some by friendly fire. When her son came home for a short furlough...

BRODY-BAREKET: He looked at me and said, how much do you want to hear? So I said, talk. Talk to me. And he had some awful stories, but I don't want to tell them.

ESTRIN: Did his team kill any fighters, any civilians?

BRODY-BAREKET: They did.

ESTRIN: Both fighters and civilians, you think?

BRODY-BAREKET: Yeah.

ESTRIN: How does that make you feel as a mother?

BRODY-BAREKET: Awful, awful. And he's going to have a very big wound in his soul.

ESTRIN: She defines herself as a radical leftist opposed to Israel's military response to the Hamas attack.

BRODY-BAREKET: As if a huge massacre in Gaza can compensate the awful massacre that we had in Israel. I cannot accept it.

ESTRIN: Brody-Bareket started a chat group on WhatsApp. In English, it's called The Mothers Cry. It's a call to pull the troops out of Gaza. She invited other parents from her son's army unit to join her. None responded, but she since has found some like-minded mothers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: At their first meeting in a Tel Aviv park, they shared what their sons told them about their experiences in Gaza.

TALY: He told us that it's like Hiroshima. He's been shocked by the destruction. By - it's, like, useless. It's leading to kill our sons. This is the only thing I see.

EFFI: We want to encourage other solutions, but it feels that the majority is in such a shock after the events of October 7, so they are not able.

ESTRIN: That's Taly and Effi - nicknames only. They don't want their sons serving in Gaza to find out about their protest. They're worried it could confuse them on the battlefield.

Do you feel lonely in Israel with your opinion?

TALY: Very much alone.

ESTRIN: A recent survey found 75% of Jewish Israelis oppose the U.S. call for Israel to reduce its bombing in densely populated areas of Gaza.

RINA SHAMIR: Let us win the war. Let us win this battle. We can...

ESTRIN: This is a different group of mothers whose sons are soldiers in Gaza protesting outside the hotel in Tel Aviv, where U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting recently. Rina Shamir says Hamas must be destroyed.

SHAMIR: I'm a fighter. I saw what they did, and I'm going to kill them all until they finished, and my grandchildren will live here free.

ESTRIN: I know a group of mothers that are calling for their sons to actually come home now. They want diplomacy instead of continuing the fight. What do you think?

SHAMIR: I don't know. I don't want to judge them. It's crazy. But we're going to win. We're going to win this battle.

ESTRIN: That's the sentiment the antiwar mothers' group is up against. But they draw inspiration from an earlier movement called the Four Mothers. That's a famous grassroots group from 20 years ago which opposed their sons' service during Israel's occupation of Lebanon and are credited with swaying public opinion, leading Israel to withdraw in 2000. Rachel Madpis Ben-Dor helped lead that successful protest, and she supports this one, too.

RACHEL MADPIS BEN-DOR: I'm so proud that women continues to go out and express their opinion and voices although it's not popular. They are trying to protect life.

ESTRIN: She's encouraging these mothers not to be afraid to speak with their sons who are serving in Gaza.

MADPIS BEN-DOR: Be a mother. You know exactly what to do. There is no question of optimism or pessimism. It's not relevant. You are there to save lives - a symbol of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: There have been small vigils in Israel calling for a ceasefire or expressing sympathy for Palestinian victims in Gaza. Many have been broken up by police on a scale that's unprecedented in recent decades, says the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which fought in court to secure permits for some protests. The Mothers Cry group is a small presence in the crowds. Founding mother Michal Brody-Bareket.

BRODY-BAREKET: It gives me a lot of hope. I'm not desperate anymore.

ESTRIN: But she still cannot bring herself to tell her own son serving in Gaza about the movement she's trying to build. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Christine Arrasmith
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