The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) is convening a special session to figure out how to respond as unprecedented protests sweep the country against budget cuts, the skyrocketing cost of housing and other basics, and growing inequality.
On Saturday evening, nearly 300,000 Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv alone, chanting “The people demand social justice,” Israeli news media reported. (Considering Israel’s tiny population of about 7.5 million, that would equate to about 12 million people protesting in Washington.) Another 30,000 demonstrated in Jerusalem, and thousands more around the country.
It followed three weeks of steadily mounting protests, involving workers, retirees, students and professionals from across Israeli’s political spectrum, including Jews, Arabs and others. Tent cities have been set up in the heart of Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel, echoing the “Arab Spring” movement in Egypt.
At a demonstration by retirees at government offices in Tel Aviv on Monday, the head of the pensioners’ union. Gideon Ben Yisrael, told the Haaretz newspaper that Israeli retirees identify with the nationwide social struggle but demand specific solutions to their sector’s problem.
Another retiree said, “The last time I protested was in 1947 against the British… open your eyes, look at what is happening around you – it’s a terrible thing.” Another speaker at the protest said: “The youth and the pensioners will oust Bibi Netanyahu together.” He was referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, popularly known as Bibi.
A sharpening housing crisis is one of the hot issues.
Tali Nir, director of the Social and Economic Rights Department in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, writes in the Jerusalem Post that the government has been selling off public land to private entrepreneurs without requiring them to create affordable or public housing. Luxury apartment construction has surged and government mortgage assistance has been slashed.
“As a result,” Nir writes, “many population groups have been left without affordable housing … Social polarization is increasing, because instead of mixed population neighborhoods, only homogeneous neighborhoods for the wealthy are being built.”
Among protests last Friday, Haaretz reported, were dozens of people from the Western Galilee – including Jewish, Arab and Druze activists who created tent encampments in the region.
Gadi Shabtai, one of the leaders of the protest there, said it was clear that most Western Galilee residents support the protest. Shabtai said the issues go beyond the lack of housing and include the high cost of living overall, from the price of electricity to dairy products and other foods.
Doctors are on strike at Israeli hospitals and health clinics, following a large social workers’ strike, reports JTA, a U.S.-based Jewish news agency. Both groups cited low wages as their reasons.
“A boycott last month of cottage cheese to protest rising prices for an Israeli staple appears to have been a symptom of widespread economic discontent that the housing protests also are tapping into,” JTA says.
The Adva Center, an Israeli research institute, documents slashes in government spending on education, health care and other services, accompanied by tax cuts for corporations and the rich. It reports soaring income inequality, growing poverty, and the “shrinking of the middle class.”
The research center has previously reported on the heavy economic price Israelis are paying for the continuing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Today’s protesters are well aware that while they are being priced out of housing, the government is subsidizing housing for Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.
Netanyahu said this week he recognizes a need to change his economic policies. To what, remains to be seen.
On Monday, protest leaders, including leaders of social organizations and student and youth groups, circulated a joint Vision Document, Haaretz reported. It says, “For a number of decades, the various governments of Israel have opted for an economic policy of privatization that leaves the free market without reins. This economic policy … has become our daily existence – a war for survival to subsist with dignity.”
Haaretz reported that “dozens” of nonprofit and social organizations will hold an emergency conference Wednesday. Giora Rozen, head of Israel’s umbrella organization of non-profit groups, said that “there can’t be a solution without dealing with Israel’s poor population together with civil society organizations.”
One protest organizer, Gil Sasson, told Ynet News: “We have here an unprecedented collective awakening; we are witnessing a people sobering up …. what started as a battle for affordable housing has turned into a protest movement that is snowballing and is now aiming for a system-wide change.”
At the Tel-Aviv rally, a mother of five told Ynet: “Today, all the people here think that the government fails to show concern for you and I, but rather, but only cares for those who are very wealthy – that’s wrong and it needs to be changed.”
Photo: Thousands of Israelis march through the streets in central Tel Aviv, Saturday evening, Aug. 6, waving flags, beating drums and chanting: “Social justice for the people.” (AP/Oded Balilty)