150,000 Israelis protest at high cost of living

 

SOME 150,000 Israelis took to the streets on Saturday night in the country’s biggest protest for social justice.

More than 100,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against the high cost of living in what was dubbed the “revolt of the middle classes” or the “Israeli spring” – a reference to the Arab spring protest movements that have swept across the region in recent months.

There were similar protests in 10 other locations, including Jerusalem and Haifa, which both attracted about 10,000 participants. The angry crowds chanted “the people demand social justice”, as speakers called for affordable housing, lower prices and a fairer distribution of wealth.

In a country where security issues are paramount, protests in favour of peace or against giving up the West Bank are relatively common, but such a large turnout over economic issues was unprecedented.

The protest began two weeks ago when a female student called on her Facebook page for people to camp out in Tel Aviv to protest against high rent costs. Within days hundreds of tents had been erected along Tel Aviv’s trendy Rothschild Boulevard and the protest quickly spread to other cities.

The activists broadened their demands to include better health and education services, and expressed support for striking doctors who were demanding improved pay and conditions.

Parents pushing strollers, complaining over the high cost of childcare, held parallel protests.

Polls showed massive public support for the protests, and the media highlighted the plight of many Israeli families who have two working parents but still find it impossible to make ends meet.

The protesters were careful not to identify with any political party, although it was clear that many of the activists were from the left.

The popularity of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has plummeted, and a series of measures he announced, designed to bring down house prices, was dismissed as too little, too late.

Ironically, the protest movement has sprouted in a period when the Israeli economy is relatively robust. Economic growth, led by a strong high-tech sector, is steady and unemployment is at a 30-year low.

Although elections are still two years away, Mr Netanyahu and ministers from his ruling Likud party are clearly worried about the political backlash.

Mr Netanyahu announced yesterday the setting up of a ministerial team to hold a dialogue with the protesters to try to change national priorities. At the same time he made it clear there would be no “irresponsible” measures.

“We must avoid rash and populist steps which may lead to bankruptcy,” he said. “We are all aware of the hardships and high cost of living in Israel. Some of the claims being made are justified and some are not.”

Many protesters blamed the top dozen or so families who control the commanding heights of Israel’s economy, but Israeli finance minister Yuval Steinitz warned against chaos. “We will not create anarchy here. We will not turn the rich, the investors and the industrialists into the enemies of the people.”