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Israeli protesters warn against war as government appears to prep Iran strikes

Around 100 people demonstrated against a war with Iran in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Around 100 people demonstrated against a war with Iran in Tel Aviv on Thursday.Yara Borgal / NBC News

TEL AVIV, Israel -- A persistent group of anti-war protesters gathered in front Israel's Ministry of Defense in Central Tel Aviv on Thursday, chanting "We don't want another war!" and warning the government against striking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Around 100 demonstrators carried signs declaring "No War" and "Don't bomb, talk!" Some lay on the ground and wrapped themselves in white sheets to simulate war casualties.

The demonstration, along with parallel actions in Haifa and Jerusalem, marked the latest in a string of growing anti-war protests that has revealed a deep unease many in Israel feel about a strike on Iran, despite Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology. 

According to reports, Iran has installed many more uranium enrichment machines in an underground bunker, potentially paving the way for a significant expansion of work the West fears is ultimately aimed at making nuclear bombs.

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While Tehran insists its nuclear program has peaceful aims, Israel sees the the work as a serious threat to its very existence. Israel has said it would take unilateral military action against Iran if the international community fails to stop any development of nuclear weapons. It is also widely assumed that Israel has nuclear weapons although it has never openly admitted to it.

According to insiders, the United States and other Western countries have told Israel that there is still time for diplomacy, and have urged the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give sanctions and diplomatic pressure time to work.

Most oppose airstrikes
The protesters on Thursday said they were not blind to the threat Iran posed, but said violence was not the way to diffuse tensions.

"A military attack will not annihilate the Iranian nuclear problem. It will only delay it," Sharon Dolev, the director of the Israeli Disarmament Movement and one of the protest organizers, told NBC News.

Another protester, Naor Kapulnik, said he believes the nuclear problem in the Middle East originated in Israel.

"This is a war Israel has been planning for years to maintain their monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East," he said. "They say that this is the way to protect and bring security to the Israeli Jewish citizens but I think that this is the exact opposite since Israel were the first to get nuclear weapons in the Middle East."

Kapulnik, Dolev and other protesters are not alone: According to the latest poll released by the independent think tank, Israel Democracy Institute, over 60 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose a strike on Iran.

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The demonstrators also said they did not believe defense ministry estimates of the number of civilians who would be killed if war does break out. Officials have said that in the case of a war with Iran and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, some 200 Israeli civilians would die. If Syria joined forces with its regional allies, fatalities could rise to 300, according to the defense ministry. 

"This is a very ridiculous thing to say. This is just one example of how they view the price of the war," Kapulnik, the demonstrator, said.  

"Who will suffer the price? It's not going to (Defense Minister Ehud Barak); it will be the ordinary people walking on the streets. One civilian dead is one too many," he added.

'Determined to attack Iran'
Nevertheless, some members of the political establishment appear intent on a violent confrontation with Iran. 

Netanyahu "is determined to attack Iran before the U.S. presidential elections in November," Alon Ben David, the military correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 News, told NBC News.  

Not only that, President Obama would have no choice but to back the Israeli strike, he said.

Dov Khenin, a member of Israel's Knesset for the Hadash party and a fixture of social justice and anti-war rallies in Tel Aviv, participated in the demonstration.

Israeli rhetoric on Iran strike heats up 

"I am here to protest against all the threats and ideas that a preemptive strike on Iran can be seen as some sort of solution to the problems we have here in the Middle East," he said. "Such a strike will cause a devastating regional war that can create havoc both here in Israel and the region around us."

Other prominent figures inside the Israeli establishment have expressed their opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, including President Shimon Peres, former Director of Mossad Meir Dagan and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz.

But despite the voices calling for caution on many levels of Israeli society, it is the government that will vote on the strike -- and according to journalist Ben David, Natanyahu it has an "almost guaranteed" majority there.

Netanyahu's government recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who previously objected to attacking Iran, to support such a move. Netanyahu also reportedly dispatched a senior official to update Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the elderly spiritual leader of the Shas ulta-orthodox coalition party, on the Iranian nuclear program in an attempt to win over Shas ministers' support for an attack.

On Friday Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel's security cabinet -- the body within the government responsible for diplomatic negotiations and decisions in times of crisis -- is currently split evenly six to six on whether to bomb Iran. According to the paper, Netanyahu would almost certainly be able to garner a majority in support of such a move. 

Despite these behind-the-scenes moves, Dolev and other protesters insisted on having their voices heard. 

"There are other options that (the government) should put on the table if they are sincere. The option is talks," she said. 

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