Israel's anti-war movement includes mothers of soldiers serving in Gaza
TEL AVIV, Israel — Among the small but growing number of Israelis protesting the war in Gaza are mothers whose sons are soldiers serving there in combat.
They call their new group The Mothers' Cry. Many of them do not have the heart to tell their sons they are trying to build a national movement to bring them home.
About a third of a million Israeli reservist soldiers were mobilized after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. More than 190 soldiers have been killed and more than 1,170 have been wounded since troops invaded Gaza in late October. Still, Israelis overwhelmingly support the military campaign in Gaza.
The anti-war mothers initiative has received little public exposure. But they are drawing inspiration from a similar grassroots protest movement of soldiers' mothers called theFour Mothers, credited with swaying public opinion against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and its high soldier death toll, leading to the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000.
"Be a mother. You know exactly what to do," says Rachel Madpis Ben-Dor, a leader in the Four Mothers movement, in support of the anti-war mothers. "You are there to save lives, as simple as that."
The math professor and her son
The storyof how Israeli math professor Michal Brody-Bareket founded the anti-war mothers group begins on the sixth day of the Gaza war.
On Oct. 7, Hamas attackers invaded southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages into Gaza, Israeli authorities say.
On Oct. 12, Brody-Bareket was walking in downtown Jerusalem, holding a handwritten sign, on her way to attend the very first protest demonstration called since the beginning of the war. When she arrived, nobody was there. The police had broken up the demonstration.
"And then, policemen aggressively threw me to the ground, me and my sign," she says. Israelis passing by on the street called out death threats to her.
What she called for on her sign — "negotiations for the release of the hostages" — is exactly what Israel ended up doing a month later: It negotiated with Hamas for the release of about half of the hostages.
"A very big wound in his soul"
Brody-Bareket's 21-year-old son was sent with his special forces unit to fight in Gaza. He has been there for most of the war.
"In my worst dreams, I never thought of such a situation that my son will be sent inside Gaza," she says. "I was climbing the walls. I was so nervous."
His army outfit of 16 soldiers is now down to seven, she says. One was killed along the Israel-Gaza border on Oct. 7 and eight others were wounded during the ground invasion of Gaza, some by friendly fire.
On a short furlough during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, her son came home.
"He looked at me and said, 'How much do you want to hear?' So I said, 'Talk, talk to me.' And he — he had some awful stories, but I don't want to tell them," she says. "He's going to have a very big wound in his soul."
His team killed fighters and civilians in Gaza, she says.
Opposing groups of mothers
Brody-Bareket defines herself as a radical leftist, opposed to Israel's military response to the Hamas attack.
"As if a huge massacre in Gaza can compensate the awful massacre that we had in Israel. I cannot accept it," she says.
Brody-Bareket opened a WhatsApp chat group, with a call to pull the ground troops out of Gaza. She laid out six main arguments for their withdrawal:
- Israel had already paid a heavy price in victims and hostages.
- The military was unable to hit Hamas' leaders, while soldiers were getting shot by friendly fire.
- Soldiers could not properly contend with Hamas' home turf.
- The Israeli government failed to prevent the Hamas attack and was unequipped to lead the war.
- Hamas continued to hit Israeli soldiers despite Israel's destructive assault.
- Israel is in a lose-lose situation.
She invited parents from her son's army unit to join her. None responded.
The group's first meeting, in a Tel Aviv park, drew seven women. Some mothers shared what their sons told them about their experiences serving in Gaza as soldiers.
"He told us that it's like Hiroshima. He's been shocked by the destruction," says one mother, who only gives her nickname, Tali. "It's, like, useless. It's leading to kill our sons. This is the only thing I see."
"We want to encourage other solutions, but it feels that the majority is in such a shock after the events of Oct. 7, so they are not able," said Effi, another mother to a soldier, who also asked to be identified only by her nickname.
Like Brody-Bareket, the two do not want their sons to know about their protest, worrying it will leave them confused on the battlefield.
Yifah Sahar, whose son is serving in the military, says they had a long conversation about her anti-war activism.
"He knows, partially, about the group," Sahar says. "He's not like me, calling to take the troops out of Gaza, but he does think that to get the hostages out, there has to be a cease-fire."
The mothers discussed in their WhatsApp chat how to support their sons serving in uniform while opposing the ground invasion of Gaza.
"The message we mothers are conveying to our sons and daughters who are in the military is this: You must fulfill your role and I support you 100% as my child. And I as a mother must fulfill my role, and that is to advocate for peace," Sahar says.
Another group of soldiers' mothers, Mothers of the Fighters, is calling for the opposite: to intensify the fight in Gaza and resist U.S. calls to scale down military operations.
"Let us win the war," shouted Rina Shamir into a megaphone outside a Tel Aviv hotel where U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was staying on a recent visit. Shamir's husband and son are both fighting in Gaza.
"I don't want to judge them. It's crazy," she said about the anti-war mothers group. "But we're going to win. We're going to win this battle."
Police have suppressed anti-war demonstrations
Israeli police have permitted demonstrations calling for the government to act to secure the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza. But many vigils calling for a cease-fire or expressing sympathy for Palestinian victims in Gazahave been broken up by police, often violently.
"Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome. I will put them on buses that are heading there right now, and I will help them get there," said Israel's chief of police, Yaakov Shabtai, in a video in mid-October.
"In recent years, this is unprecedented. All the crackdown on freedom of expression and on freedom of protest is unprecedented," says Noa Sattath, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has successfully fought in court to secure permits for anti-war protests. "In all the Gaza wars there has been nothing like this."
The Mothers' Cry began with eight members in a WhatsApp chat and today counts several hundred members on its WhatsApp and Facebook groups. They are a modest presence in weekly street protests, which have been growing. The largest so far drew many hundreds in a march in Tel Aviv on Thursday, endorsed by a coalition of more than 20 anti-war groups, including The Mothers' Cry.
"It gives me a lot of hope," Brody-Bareket said at a recent demonstration. "I am not desperate anymore."
But she still can't bring herself to tell her own son serving in Gaza about the movement she's trying to build.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.